22 November 2013

Audrey Hepburn, JFK, and Benny Goodman

Thanksgiving Break has officially begun. And it couldn't have started at a better time.

I've been sick most of this week (if not the whole month). Since my last blog post, I've gotten sick three times. It's been terrible. I have such a weak immune system, always have. And everything I've had to do as regards to school, activities, religious life, home life, etc. has been taking a toll on my health.

So today I sit before you (well, not really, my words do) and I will say a few words about things on my mind.

First: It's November 22nd, 2013. Fifty years ago, on that afternoon in Dallas...but of course you know the story. It's been referenced everywhere: the media, movies such as Parkland and JFK, countless documentaries, and history and English classes. Obviously I wasn't alive on November 22nd, 1963, so I can't really give an opinion on how extremely devastating it might have been (being, that is, the psychological implications of JFK's assassination) but I knowe ynogh that it was extremely tragic and shattered the idyll of America forever.

As you likely know, I'm obsessed with the period in American history around 1940 to 1965. It was a golden age in American history- the Second World War had just ended, Wall Street and the economy were back in business, everyone was happy and relieved, rock and roll reached its height, and fedoras. I love most everything from that era - the clothing, the music, the slang...

Of course there were some not-so-great things, such as the USSR and the Cold War. The devastation in Europe, Japan and elsewhere after the War was horrifying. As stated above, America's innocence and idyll was shattered. Camelot will never come again. There was still racism, sexism, and chauvinism (those last two are superfluous) in America at that time.

But not every age is perfect. Today's society is better than most ages in history, but it's not perfect either. We are besieged by an barrage of horror stories: crises in the Mid East, genocide in the Sudan, the unrelenting recession that's been going on for the better part of a decade, the terrible music (I'm so facetious here)...

But the 40's through the early 60's (after which hippies, drug culture, and platform shoes came on the scene, ruining everything) were a very awesome time. It started by dancing to the tune of jazz numbers by some of the greats (Count Basie, Benny Goodman, and Glenn Miller, to name a few) and ended with The Twist, Elvis Presley, and Buddy Holly. (I owe quite a bit to Buddy Holly - my glasses, hair, etc are a homage to him.)

And then movies! Movies weren't silent any more, hadn't been for a decade or so. But now some really amazing movies came out, the "Golden Age of Hollywood". Casablanca, Rebecca, Cyrano de Bergerac, pretty much any Marilyn Monroe movie (I kid, I kid...or am I?)...and of course, a true classic: Audrey Hepburn's Breakfast at Tiffany's.

I'm a fan of Truman Capote: In Cold Blood is one of my favorite novels and the movie that came out some years ago was very good. But Breakfast at Tiffany's is just amazing. It is one of the most unequivocal ironies of my life that I have not once read the original novella that Truman Capote wrote. But he did write the screenplay of the movie, and that was amazing. I can just picture myself being "Fred". :) it is a must see movie.

“I’ll never get used to anything. Anybody that does, they might as well be dead.”


27 October 2013

My Right Arm Is Complete Again!

I've just finished designing and fixing my Hallowe'en costume. It's gonna be epic.

I was originally going to be a mime, but the costumes were all sad and disappointing. I've had the idea since about fifth grade, when a family friend dressed up as a mime, and it was a really cool costume. However, she had made it herself and we just didn't have the time this year to do so.

So then I got to thinking. And so, lo and behold, for the fourth year in a row, I picked my costume from the Victorian/British Imperialism era. Behold...Sweeney Todd!

Photo Credit: impawards.com
It's going to be a very interesting costume. The last three years (four, if you count the Phantom of the Opera in 6th grade) I was the Mad Hatter, an Indian maharajah (think the evil character in Moulin Rouge), and a Victorian gentleman vampire. My favorite of these was the Mad Hatter. It was brilliant, elegant, powerful, and got lots of compliments. I don't think I've taken so many pictures with random strangers who were amazed.

So this year I'm a demon barber. Sweeney Todd, for all the sadly uninitiated, is the legend of a barber on Fleet Street who kills his customers maniacally. He arranges a deal with the pie maker downstairs, Mrs. Lovett, who sadly doesn't have enough money for meat. Suffice it to say that Sweeney need not worry about where to hide his bodies, and Mrs. Lovett didn't need to pay for meat anymore.

It's a gothically twisted story, and was a fixture in Victorian melodramas. Because, you know, Punch and Judy wasn't enough. (Once day I'll discuss Punch and Judy, the most amazing show in the world.) But then, as the Victorian age died out, in the Gay Nineties, so did Sweeney.

In the 70's, however, playright Christopher Bond rewrote the story into a play. Now Sweeney had a wife and daughter. A licentious judge lusted after the wife, imprisoned Sweeney in Australia, and kept the daughter while the wife killed herself. Spoiler alert: Sweeney returns, he kills the judge, his wife (who somehow survived, and he didn't know until afterwards), the judge's Beadle, Mrs. Lovett, and his daughter (no, the daughter survives.)

In 1979, the venerable Stephen Sondheim, who also made the amazing gem "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum" made the play into a Tony-winning musical. The rest is history. In 2007, Captain Jack Sparrow Johnny Depp, Bellatrix Lestrange Helena Bonham Carter appeared in the film version, which was delightfully amazing.

But you probably knew all that anyway. :) But I do hope this year will be an epic year, on par with the Mad Hatter. But here, until the next post, I leave you with a playlist: the film's soundtrack, which has the songs from the original musical, a bit modified:


16 October 2013

Hanged for Theft

We decorated our house yesterday. My mother, a great fan of all things Hallowe'en, was extremely enthusiastic, but I guess we all were. It's Hallowe'en, man! *shrugs*

We have about four or five skeletons. Not that big, and obviously not real, just about 30-inch plastic skeletons. Last year my brother had the bright idea to tie a string to one's neck and hang it off the tree closest to the sidewalk. I don't know if people noticed, but they likely did.

This year, however, he took things to an even more grim, darkly humoristic sense.
"I'm becoming more like you, Rob, I swear."
"It's a good thing."  "Not really."

He did the sign in all of five minutes, while the rest of us were tying cobwebs to palm trees and much else. I suggested he redo the sign to say something more poetic and archaic, like:

Let it be Known that this Day, 
October 15th, the Year of our Lord 2013
A shameless Prisoner hath been Hanged from this Tree
For the unpardonable Vices of Theft, Larceny and Treason.
Let his merciless Ending serve as a Justly Warning
To any who would attempt such a treacherous Deed.

He wasn't up for it, though, he said he had no more cardboard or paint. Oh well. But it still would have been nice. If people could understand it. Maybe "Hanged 4 Theft" is a good sign, then. People can understand it.

What do you think? 


12 October 2013

NaNoWriMo 2013!

NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month, for all the uninitiated) is fast approaching, twenty days away to be exact. (What is NaNoWriMo, Rob? You write a novel in a month, the month being November, to take advantage of the terrible snowy stormy weather sunny, nice SoCal weather occasionally punctuated by rain and clouds, to write a novel. That's it. Read to the end of this post for me to teach you how.)

This will be the third year I participate in NaNo. The first two years have been very interesting to me. The first time I attempted this, I wrote a simple yet complex story about a group of teenaged kids and a mad professor who go island-hopping across the Pacific to find a pirate's lost legacy. I titled it "A Forgotten Legacy", it was 27000-odd words and is 107 pages long.

Last year I tried something more different. In standard Canterbury Tales fashion, I took seventeen (or eighteen? I'm still not sure) characters, made them tell stories to a narrator known as "The Interviewer" (well, actually, his name was Christian Harland, but The Interviewer sounds more ominous), and combined the stories. It was, stylistically, a disaster. Think LOST, combined with The Canterbury Tales, combined with something written by Borges, combined with a World History course. Yeah. I had characters referencing others that didn't exist, I had many unrealistic situations that at the time seemed perfectly plausible, and more.

That novel is unfinished. I technically "won" NaNoWriMo, I passed the 40,000 word goal I set, but the novel is unfinished. I wrote the novel out of order - big shocker - and that explains the plot discrepancies. Like the Canterbury Tales, it's unfinished and several characters have no story to tell. I even have one chapter where a character gets ready to tell his story, then nothing....until the next page where I continue with, "He finished his story. Christian stared at him."

Yeah, I'm not even gonna explain that. I got very insane towards the end. But the reason I chose the novel at all was to write short stories, stick a frame story in the interstices, and call it a novel. That's why I failed. (Though the short stories, the ones I finished at least, are pretty good, to be honest, to stand alone.)

But this year is different! My first year was simple, my second was too complex. I need a happy medium in order to make this year successful. I have a plot idea, already, not sure if I'll use it, but it's out there. It will tend to be philosophical. I've always wanted to write philosophy, mainly existentialism, because I'm a fan of existentialism. But we shall see, won't we?

(If you're interested in doing this, go to their site if you're an adult, and their other site if you're under 18. What's the difference? If you're on the adult site, you must write 50,000 words, minimum. As a kid you can set your word goal, that's pretty much the only change. You can set your goal to 100 words if you wish. :P)

The really neat thing about NaNo is the past couple of years, if you finish, you get a publishing offer from CreateSpace, where you can get 5 free paperback copies of your novel. I've gotten the offer both times but of course haven't done it. The editing's a nightmare. But this year, I will do it. Definitely. Third time's the charm, they say, but this time I will really try to get those copies. Ad astra por aspera.

One final thing: if you're interested: see how my younger self took NaNo last year. That was with the complex novel. Reading the advice I gave, no wonder I didn't finish it. Plus, it was my second ever blog post. :)


08 October 2013

The Ourang Medan Explained

Who's ready for a ghost story? :) It's October, and remember, I wish to set a mood, since Halloween is imminent and it is my favorite holiday.

This "ghost" story is unverified, though I wouldn't be surprised if it was real. That being said, let's begin!

The year is 1948 (some accounts say 1952 or 1947). There is a ship, The Silver Star. It's an American US Navy ship, and it's posted in Indonesia with other ships, off the coast of Medan, an city on Sumatra, in Indonesia.

One day they, and some other ships in addition to Dutch radio outposts, receive a distress call from the ship SS Ourang Medan, an Indonesian ship (Ourang Medan means "The Man from Medan".) The distress call goes as follows:

“All officers including captain are dead lying in chartroom and bridge. Possibly whole crew dead." [morse code follows] "I die." 

Silence followed this grim message. Shades of terror. So the Silver Star intercepts the Ourang Medan over the sea and the crew gets on the Medan. Their gaze is met by dead men: the entire crew of the Medan is dead, frozen in horror, with their facial expressions contorted into fear. But the one thing they had in common was that all the crewmembers' arms stretched towards the sun.

The crew went down. All along the hold, the captain and his men lay dead, just like the rest. However, the most disturbing part was that the boiler room, which should have been over 100 degrees (think: it's a boiler room on a humid day near the Equator) was extremely cold. Many of the Star's crew shivered as they walked around the inside of the ship.

The worst was yet to come. As the Star's members attempted to investigate further, a fire broke out in the depths of the ship (nitroglycerin and other chemicals mixing with seawater have been blamed) which prevented any more investigation. As the Star sailed away the Ourang Medan sunk beneath the waves, never to be seen again.

The reason this story is so haunting is because of its uncertainty. The story first appeared in a newspaper in 1952. Many magazines since have reported the story. Yet many have tried to locate the ship's registers and records and have been unsuccessful. Lloyd's Shipping Registrar, a ship register that is fairly comprehensive and who should have had the Ourang Medan listed, does not have it. Other contemporary records during the time don't mention the ship.

Many explanations have been given for the Ourang Medan, including UFOs, methane and nitroglycerin gas, cannibals, and mass suicide. I won't go over them here, but I hope you realize and can appreciate the extent and uncertainty of this story. It's certainly disturbing. Perhaps that's why many don't believe in it. Do you?


05 October 2013

The Most Wonderful Time of the Year

It's October!

October is possibly my favorite month. To be sure, my favorite season is fall. Why? Because it's perfect. You start off with October, which has Halloween and all sorts of macabre hauntings, which leads into November. November is NaNoWriMo month, which I'll be participating in for the third year in a row. (hopefully I get enough time to write my novel!) At the end of the month, of course, is Thanksgiving, a wonderful holiday, which leads into December, which, of course, is self-explanatory. There's always something going on around this time of the year.

To prepare for Halloween, the most perfect holiday out there, I have begun to watch horror films and reread classics. I just watched the 1931 version of Dracula. It wasn't perfect (amazing plot holes, unless you take implied scenes as fact) but of course, Bela Lugosi's portrayal which has become legend was amazing.

As to Halloween, then - I'll be writing new Trivialities each week, of course. Each one will have to do with something "grotesque and arabesque" - to use Poe's term. What that is, you'll just have to wait and see! I will recommend novels and stories to read, I will compile playlists of haunting music, and much more. Halloween is such an amazing holiday, isn't it?


27 September 2013

Questions With Answers

Here we are, a month later from that one post. Sorry about the wait, if you were curious. I'm ready to answer my questions that I have posed to you. But then again, they weren't my questions...or were they? >:D

Is this the real life? No, it certainly is not. It's all based on perspective.

Is this just fantasy? Life isn't real, but it isn't fantasy. It's based on perception. :) (This is what happens when you try to marry philosophy to music. Though Freddie Mercury was indeed, by all accounts, a genius.)

How many roads does a man walk down before you can call him a man? Men can carry propane tanks. The more apt question is: how many propane tanks can you shake before you call him a man? (inside joke)

All the lonely people - where do they come from? Lonely people come from their mothers' wombs. I know I did.

Do you believe in magic? When I didn't receive my Hogwarts letter at 11, I was depressed for a month. So no, I don't.

How does it feel to be on your own, to be without a home, like a complete unknown, like a rolling stone? It feels like...life. Then again I'm not "Miss Lonely".

Will you still love me, when I'm no longer young and beautiful? I'm not in any position to answer this question.

How could you leave on Yom Kippur? Well, you see, I was really confused about that whole sundown beginning aspect. Sorry.

If this is what I call home then why do I feel so alone? Well, I'm home alone. No one else is. There you go.

Is it in your genes? What is? 

Come on girls, are you ready to play?
(Back in 8th grade, I was an Indian Maharajah. The teacher I TA'ed for suggested I get a harem. Unfortunately I don't have a harem. 

Why don't you do right, get me some money too?
But I had money in 1922...maybe I'll try again 2022. :)

Do you know what it feels like to be the last one to know the lock on the door has changed?  "I told you, the door to my office is always open. I think you know why it's always open -- that was stolen, I'd like that returned." ~Bob Newhart

Would you dance, if you asked me to dance?
"On the contrary -- I find quadrille invigorating." ~Hamish, Alice in Wonderland 

 What about all the things that you said we were to gain? 
Oh, don't worry...we're "guarding" your money. Don't worry. :)

Oh, who would ever want to be king? 
Oh, I dunno...Liu Bang, Gorm the Old, Harald Bluetooth, George I, Richard III, Louis XVI, Tarquinius Severus, and others.

 Am I a dead man now, living with the pain? 
"People die, it happens. Sometimes they even die twice." ~Walter Bishop

 Is it over yet, will I ever feel again? 
Ask James Holman before asking that question again.

He was a boy, she was a girl, can I make it any more obvious?  
You can try.

 If you see Kay, will you tell her I love her? 
I don't know Kay, but I know I and Jay and Ell and Em.

 How many special people change, how many lives are living strange?
 "We all change, for better or for worse. Usually worse." ~My friend

Could it be that we have been this way before?  
Could it be that we have been this way before?

 Is your conscience all right, does it plague you at night?
"Ah! that is clearly a metaphysical speculation, and like most metaphysical speculations has very little reference at all to the actual facts of real life, as we know them." ~Cecily Cardew

 Did you make it to the Milky Way and see the lights all faded, and that Heaven is overrated? 
I didn't make it to the Milky Way, though. I did make it to the Andromeda Galaxy though, and the lights there are beautiful. :)

What in the world does your company take me for? My company? The CEO, of course. :) You? Get back to me later. :)

If we dissolved without a trace, would the real world even care? "That's the way of things...the real world and the fake world...rarely are." ~Me and Walter Bishop


16 September 2013

On Knowledge

"The whole universe interests me." ~George Brecht

Today's topic is knowledge, whether it's gained for the sake of gaining, or worth pursuing.

I use the phrase "an infinite mind" a lot. Not simply related to the title of this blog, but in conversation I might use it. I use it to describe myself, to describe people who lived their lives out in pursuit of knowledge. da Vinci had an infinite mind. Albert Einstein had an infinite mind. John Dalton had an infinite mind. There are many others. I revere these people simply because they went and discovered more. All discovery is not good - Robert Oppenheimer comes to mind. But yet it made the world a more curious, smarter place.

In case you haven't read the nineteen columns I've posted since January on topics, I enjoy knowledge.   Sure, I go and trivialize it and call it "trivia". It might be. It isn't exactly relevant to your life the way, say, how iOS works for your iPad or whatever. But I enjoy studying about this stuff.

Knowledge is important because I've always wanted to learn, stretch out my arms farther and reach the next level in education, in self-advancement. At age 3 I knew to read. By 4 I knew all the US Presidents, their VPs and terms. By 5 I knew the countries of the world. Don't call me a prodigy. What I was was merely curious.

People need to go out and discover things. Not simply because it'll be relevant to your life. Many people say that everything is relevant to life. The Amber Room, the VOC, Gorm the Old, Captain Cook aren't always relevant to life. But yet you'll be a bit smarter. You'll be aware of the amazing diversity and aptitude the world has in terms of knowledge. "Ipsa scientia potestas est"- knowledge itself is power. ~Francis Bacon

My ideal life is as such: study all the available branches of knowledge in university, in particular world literature, psychology, art fundamentals, philosophy and calculus. Learn 5 additional languages. Travel to every single country in the world. Partake in a ritual for each religion. Learn to play 2 musical instruments. Read classical literature. There is much, much more.

Of course, I will never accomplish all of the above. It is very possible. But it is also very nearly impossible.

What, then, is there to do? Learn. There is the Internet. There are books and print media. There are many resources out there. We simply don't know how to use them. Modern society likes lolcats and duck faces more than self-improvement. "Thank God for books and music and things I can think about!" ~Charlie Gordon

I am horrible at math. Equations make sense to me, yet when I sit down to work on my pre-calc homework, my mind is more often than not a blank. (OK, not that often, but there are many times.) Yet I opted to take Precalculus/Calculus 1 this year instead of Trig/Precalculus. Why? Why would I go to a harder math class when I struggle? For the challenge. Calculus fascinates me. Calculus makes our cars run, our aeroplanes fly, our bank accounts work, our computers process. I wish to learn how exactly calculus ties all the branches of mathematics together. It will be a struggle, mostly uphill. Yet I wish to learn.

As TE White says in his book The Sword in the Stone, 

“The best thing for being sad," replied Merlin, beginning to puff and blow, "is to learn something. That's the only thing that never fails. You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake at night listening to the disorder of your veins, you may miss your only love, you may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honour trampled in the sewers of baser minds. There is only one thing for it then — to learn. Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting. Learning is the only thing for you. Look what a lot of things there are to learn.” 

I think we should all live by those words, don't you think? There is so much out there. "There are so many doors to open. I am impatient to begin." 


10 September 2013

Life and Bossa Nova

Greetings from a cold, chilly evening.

I apologize for not posting -- I have had some spare time on my hands but I haven't thought of anything worth riding writing (where'd that come from?). So I will simply bore you with details of my evening.

I have discovered a new music craze. (By the way, I'll work on the answers to those questions I posed to you, readers...)You'll remember that this summer was largely devoted to me discovering and appreciating rock and roll from the '50s -- Chubby Checker, Elvis, Little Richard, The Killer, etc, and that was fun. But I've changed my music habits. Bossa nova -- it's the new thing. :)

I made a pun up there. Unless you know what bossa nova means or you're Portuguese or both -- you didn't get it. Bossa nova literally means "new thing" or "new trend". You just learned your Portuguese phrase of the day! I recommend it to anyone who knows or has mastered Spanish. I'm learning Portuguese independently at the moment -- supplemented by listening to bossa nova. It's wonderful.

So what is this bossa nova, exactly? Bossa nova was a style of music that came in during the 1950s and early 1960s. It blends jazz with samba. So you'll hear trumpets with conga drums, and all that jazz. (Literally and figuratively).

Today bossa nova's pretty much a standard, for up-and-coming jazz musicians to play, but don't mistake bossa nova of being solely jazz. It's a separate music genre all its own, with wonderful influences and beats. Why can't we have more music like this today?

And yes, it is largely sung in Portuguese, specifically Brazilian Portuguese. Don't let that deter you. Listening to music in foreign languages helps you learn better. It's a good mental workout for your brain, even if you're not trying to find out the meaning. And whatever you do, don't Google Translate! It ruins the enchantment.

Some favorites: "Águas de Março" (Waters of March/March rains) by Carlos Jobim. "Manhã de Carnaval" (Morning of Carnaval) by Luiz Bonfa. "Chega de Saudade" by Joao Gilberto and "Lalo's Bossa Nova" by Lalo Schifrin. The cheerful "Alvorada" by Cartola (which has lots of samba influences). And, of course, no list is complete with "Garota de Ipanema", better known as "The Girl from Ipanema" (splendidly vocalized by Astrud Gilberto, but Frank Sinatra's version shouldn't be overlooked.)

So, there, a quick update. Consider this Tuesday's Triviality. Some info on a very interesting music genre that I recommend anyone looking for a jazzy yet calming, samba like atmosphere type music to listen to. Or just if you want to unwind.


28 August 2013

500 Days of Summer (or more like 70)

Today is the last day of summer vacation for me (and many others).

The first post I made this summer was the classical music one where I enumerated some of my favorite classical pieces. I still remember that morning, getting up and banging out the words since I was in a daze, that summer was at last here. I'd had lots of stress since April and at last I could relax. (From May, where I only posted 3 times, one of them as a freakin' blog note, to July, where I posted 13 times, which sounds normal to you but unbelievable to me, shows how much I love summer.) Note: I did say once that when school started I'd be at Triviality 20. I'm at 18, which isn't bad, but 20 is actually impossible. I could have gotten up to 19, but not 20. If that makes any sense.

That night I saw the summer solstice for the first time. I discussed that as well, the only time I've ever had two posts in one day (though the blog won't show that, due to my editing tricks with dates) and so on.

Usually when this time comes I forget most of my vacation and things I did. Not so this time. Partly because of this blog, I'm able to remember topics I was studying. Usually I only remember the week-long vacations I take abroad or a pool or a chat with friends or something. If it hadn't been for Infinite Mind, I'd have forgotten I had an obsession with Nikola Tesla, I was bored (well, maybe not forgotten that), or that I discussed pictures.

I've done a lot this summer, possibly more than other summers. Though it wasn't as great as the summer of my 7th grade (two years ago), this one was a lot of fun. I went up north, I did 3 summer assignments (including 100 chemistry problems and an essay that was challenging because I wrote 650 words when I needed only 500 at the most), and blogged on here. I read a 1000-page book, something I don't think I've done since 2009, and 8 other books in less than 15 days. I went through 5 decades of the 1900s in six weeks (I was obsessed with the twenties, watched silent movies, listened to big bands, studied WWII on my own, did a makeshift sock hop in my room, wrote a '50s story, and beyond.)

This year will be much more challenging. I will take 2 AP classes as a sophomore, and 2 honors classes. I'll be in a journalism-cum-yearbook program full time, head a grade level in a club, and go through confirmation. It will all be hell at certain points.

But at the same time I need to relax. I'm notorious for stressing out over things that I needn't worry about. Which is why I am going to say, here, right now: I will try not to let this blog die, at least 4 posts per month at the least, and attempt to make myself less nervous and stressed out. Will it be hard? Definitely. Will it all be worth it in the end? Perhaps.

But I can keep on going. There's only 295 days till summer vacation rolls around again. 293 until my birthday. It may seem impossibly long, but when I think back and feel that 2011 was just yesterday, when in reality it was two years ago, then I know it's possible to wait.

Smile on. Summer vacation will come around again. All we have to do is wait.


27 August 2013

James Holman Explained

At last, I get to discuss James Holman! Another obscure British guy, just like Samuel Johnson (but I promise that this one didn't write a dictionary and obscure things.)

Imagine you were blind. On top of being blind, you suffered severe rheumatism and arthritis that left you in constant pain. Every time you tried to get up in the morning, you would suffer such severe pain that you couldn't get out of bed and you'd have to lie there. Now imagine traveling all by yourself in distant lands with those disabilities. Alone, far away from your native country (Britain, let's say). Now imagine travelling over 250,000 miles (400,000 kilometers) all over the world, surpassing everyone's efforts of all time. Can you?

Welcome to the strange, inspiring, exciting world of James Holman, the "Blind Traveller".

Too bad he couldn't see this painting, but oh well...
He was awesome.

James Holman, oddly and unfairly, is astonishingly forgotten about in today's "travelling society". What do I mean by "travelling society"? Think back two hundred years. There were only two ways of travelling: through water, by ship, which could either give you scurvy (until 1850-thereabouts), long routes and seasickness, or by land, which could be dangerous (mountains, etc). So most people didn't travel unless you were a sailor, a marchant, or eccentric.

James Holman belonged to all three of these. He was in the Royal Navy officially, he grew up in his father's apothecary, and he was definitely an eccentric (in the eyes of Victorian society, where the farthest people travelled was to the nearest coffeeshop to read the latest Dickens serial.)

Holman was born in 1786, the fourth son of his parents. He began working in the apothecary as soon as he was old enough, and then joined the Royal Navy at the age of 13 as a volunteer. Nine years later he'd become a lieutenant. However in 1810 he'd succumb to a disease that affected his joints, then finally made him completely blind at the age of 25.

In spite of all of this, Holman persevered. In those days, to be blind meant you were a pariah to all, scorned and avoided on the streets. The higher classes would assume you were mentally deranged, the lower orders would assume you had syphilis or something and stay well away from you. He was given free room and board in Windsor Castle in exchange for praying at church twice a day, but that didn't go so well with him.

Holman realized that this would be his only chance of exploring the worlds beyond he'd heard about many times in the Navy and by merchants. He requested many leaves of absence by the Navy, as excuses to go and study first, then to go on a Grand Tour.

Side Note: The Grand Tour is basically something upper-class men did when they became of age, around 21-25. They would go to the "Continent" (Americans, that's the European continent) if they were British, and begin around France. They'd visit different countries, peoples, and experience culture. It'd last about 2 or 3 years, which upon ending, they would return home and be considered a man. Best manhood test I've ever heard in any society.

Holman decided to travel the world west-to-east: which was unheard of at the time, but is now generally accepted. (US to Europe to Asia, etc) He began his journey and travelled as far as Siberia and Mongolia. By that time, the Russian Czar believed he was a spy and sent Holman back to Poland. Holman returned but now he vowed to visit even more lands.

By this he amazingly succeeded. He visited South America and befriended natives. He charted unknown areas of Africa and vigorously tried to stop the slave trade (which got him a river named in his honor). He went to the Pacific Islands and more. He published many books, though his last book, completed a week before his death, was never published and "likely has not survived". Holman died at 70.

And how exactly did a blind man do a trip, alone, during some of the most dangerous times ever? He turned to the bats. Holman took a cane everywhere with him, which he'd tap on the ground or on nearby areas and hear the sounds and reverberations. Echolocation, quite basically. Of course, many distrusted this and many thought he was a fraud since people can be quite narrow-minded, which is likely how this remarkable man became forgotten in the first place.

If you want to find out more, read A Sense of the World by Jason Roberts. Very inspiring.


24 August 2013

Alchemy Explained

Rob's Note: If it's of any interest, looking at the latest reports from Blogger, the three most-viewed Trivialities are, respectively: I (Geography), 6 (the VOC), and 8 (Alien Hand Syndrome). Least viewed? 15 (the Naming Catalog). Make of that what you will.

I've been pressed for trivia things and interest to write this week, but better late than never. Also: return of the index cards (at least one).

Today's topic: Alchemy. It's so fascinating. I don't care that it doesn't exist anymore. It's mystical, enthralling, and perfectly Romantic. And there's so much about it that's just interesting.

“And, when you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it.”
 ~Paulo Coelho, The Alchemist

The subject: Alchemy was basically the precursor to chemistry. It involved mixing known chemicals and solutions to achieve main goals: the philosopher's stone, base metals to gold, synthesization of alkahest, and a medicine that would cure anything.

Most people know only the whole lead-into-gold thing, but there was a lot more behind it, as explained above. Unfortunately the Interweb doesn't help because the only way to look up info is by the completely reliable Wikipedia and the mystical crockery sites that are really just mumbo-jumbo. (Google alchemy if you don't believe me.) And alchemy isn't mumbo jumbo. It was considered a real science for two millennia. It was believed as credible by many eminent peoples of the day, like Ibn-Sina (Avicenna), who cured smallpox almost 1000 years before it was eradicated. It was just a product of its day and age, like horses and carriages, the Rolling Stones, and Quantum Pads (I just always make the topic return to me, don't I...)

Back to the topic. Alchemy began with the Greeks (like most everything else out there) when they believed in what we'll call the classical elements, namely Earth, Wind and Fire Water, Air, Earth, and Fire.

To the Greeks and others, everything fell into place neatly. You burn wood, with fire and air, and earth was converted. It was remarkably simple...or so history'd have you believe. But there was so much complexity and breadth with alchemy. It wasn't just mixing potions. There were symbols that had to be used to denote chemicals. Many chemicals were synthesized and given names we use today (vitrol, ammonia, etc.)

Some famous alchemists? Isaac Newton, interestingly, who was certain that one day he'd discover the true answers to heaven and earth in alchemy. In addition, there was the most badass priest ever, Roger Bacon, who turned cryptography into an art, wrote plans for flying machines, studied the Mongols, and was jailed for "focusing on such dangerous novelties" as opposed the Church. There was Trithemius, another famous cryptographer, who invented the tableau. The more classical ones that Victor Frankenstein worshipped: Paracelsus, and Cornelius Agrippa. Finally, arguably the most famous: John Dee, Queen Elizabeth (the first's, obviously) doctor, who was a rather odd fellow. (He was an expert on the occult, crystal balls and all.)

Side Note: Nicolas Flamel, from Harry Potter and a bunch of other books, was NOT a real alchemist. He was a book publisher and printer. His "reputation" sprang up after his death, ironically. Sorry to burst anyone who's looking for him for the Stone's bubble. (Hermione...Harry...Ron...)

During the Middle Ages people didn't think highly of alchemists. In general many considered them thieves and charlatans, and of course the Church almost immediately branded them heretics. It was a very sensitive and mystical thing, alchemy...the symbols used in writing down metals and other formulas would be interpreted as signs to summon the Devil, and spirits. (Read Faust, there's a bit in the first part that proves this.)

So I stated above some pretty interesting things: the philosopher's stone, base metals to gold, synthesization of alkahest, and a medicine that would cure anything. Do they sound like things from Lord of the Rings, Narnia, or Harry Potter? Let me explain.

The philosopher's stone most everyone's heard. A stone with the power to turn base metals (lead, nickel, tin, etc.) to gold or the regal metals (silver, platinum, and copper). However, according to the Hermetic principles (basically philosophers), this represented purification, balance, and all that jazz.

Alkahest is more interesting. It was considered "the solvent of everything". For the uninitiated in chemistry, a solvent is something that dissolves something else. Think of water. That's considered the "universal solvent" because it's pretty good at dissolving. But even water has its limits (think oil and nonpolar substances). Alkahest would dissolve EVERYTHING. Even gold and other precious metals. Of course, this went nowhere, but that didn't stop Paracelsus from trying.

The medicine that cured anything...that's kinda obvious. It didn't go anywhere.

So of course, with this system that most people branded heretical, it had to end. Remember, of course, it included a mix of magic, the occult, some outdated theories (new-dated, at the time) and more. So eventually it had to go. Enter Robert Boyle (one of the many epic scientists named Robert: Robert Brown, Robert Millikan, Robert Chambers, and Robert Bunsen.) In the 1660s he published a book called The Skeptical Chemist (if you're outdated like me, The Scyptical Chymist). That was pretty much the death knell for alchemy, as everyone started rushing in and adding order and refinement. It all was a paper chain that has led to chemistry as we know it. Which is just awesome!

But of course, I wouldn't mind being a mystical alchemist...


22 August 2013

Questions Without Answers

I have a bunch of questions that I have no answers to. Well, I will answer them. But I'm interested to see what everyone here thinks! So as a result, I will list these questions -- twenty five of them -- and see what you, readers and lurkers, think are the answers. I'd love to hear everyone's answers! You don't have to answer every question, just the ones you like. Or whatever. I will post my answers soon.

Is this the real life? Or rather: Is this just fantasy?

Here's a personal favorite: Dear Sir or Madam, will you read my book?

A bit too close to home: How many roads does a man walk down before you can call him a man?

Saddening: All the lonely people - where do they come from?

One Harry Potter might like: Do you believe in magic?

Ooh, this one's cold: How does it feel to be on your own, to be without a home, like a complete unknown, like a rolling stone?

I might have covered this back in an April post... Will you still love me, when I'm no longer young and beautiful? 

Nice answer to this one: How could you leave on Yom Kippur?

If this is what I call home then why do I feel so alone?

Haunting one: Is it in your genes?

Don't think too wrong of this one: "Come on girls, are you ready to play?"

Why don't you do right, get me some money too?

Every relationship partner's fear: Do you know what it feels like to be the last one to know the lock on the door has changed?

One that is perhaps too not like me: Would you dance, if you asked me to dance? 

Every capitalist's nightmare: What about all the things that you said we were to gain?

Oh, who would ever want to be king?

No Walking Dead references here...or is there: Am I a dead man now, living with the pain?

Sort of coincides with the above: Is it over yet, will I ever feel again?

He was a boy, she was a girl, can I make it any more obvious?

Secret message in this one: If you see Kay, will you tell her I love her?

Very true one here: How many special people change, how many lives are living strange?

Could it be that we have been this way before?

Haunting: Is your conscience all right, does it plague you at night?

Too mystical for my tastes: Did you make it to the Milky Way and see the lights all faded, and that Heaven is overrated?

What in the world does your company take me for?

And the most ominous one of all, with shades of Sara Teasdale... If we dissolved without a trace, would the real world even care?

All of these songs are personal favorites of mine and make up a substantial part of my personal, secret playlist. Or did. Bonus points if you guess which songs they are, with singers of course. 


19 August 2013

On History (Or, Lessons That You Could Learn From The Past)

I just finished reading a world history book. Re-reading's a better term; I've had this book for more than two years.

For anyone interested in a fun, easy read about world history, it's called A Little History of the World, by Ernst Gombrich. (Note: it's Eurocentric, which I'll discuss below, and somewhat childish. It was written for kids to understand, but it's still very mature and readable.)

History is largely scorned and forgotten about in modern society. Ask any 15-year-old who ruled France after the Monarchy, and you will likely get one of these three responses:

a) Huh? I dunno.
b) Napoleon, I'm pretty sure.
c) Which time?

Napoleon gets a bad rap, imo.
Photo Credit: Wikipedia
The first response is most likely to be heard. The second is also sort of common, if you're talking to a reasonably intellectual person who knows history in degrees, and should be commended. And the third response (which res ipsa loquitur, I would totally respond with) is actually the most correct. The monarchy was replaced twice. Three times, if you count the Hundred Days of Napoleon.

History can be very useful. Extremely. George Bernard Shaw once said,
We learn from history that we learn nothing from history.
Overreacting? But Shaw was right. Many, many times, over the course of human history, whether it was Romulus Augustulus losing the Roman Empire, to Napoleon reinstalling the aspects of the ancien regime, to the VOC bringing themselves to their knees with corruption for the third time, to Hitler plunging Germany into another war, to anything repetitive and useless: we have done it before, and if it hasn't, it will be done again.

It's important to learn about history for these reasons. True, it's unlikely that you'll start a world war or give up the world's most powerful empire, but think about your own history. If you promised yourself you'd stay up to study once and just started getting distracted, and you have to study tonight, you might want to not be distracted. Just a vague way of explaining.

You should take the time and effort to pay attention in your history class or to read a history book. History can be very interesting if you learn about it the right way. You can do this a number of ways. The one that will get you most through your history class is to lose your sense of knowing. Let me explain.

Imagine you're a Dutch sailor with, let's say, the VOC. (See here if you don't know what it is or you've forgotten.) The year is 1645 and the New World awaits. You've always wanted to go visit the colonies along there, including New Amsterdam! Imagine what it must be like. If you've ever been on a boat or even a plane, imagine seeing a new place for the first time from far off. Imagine the new people you'll meet: Native Americans, merchants, Pilgrims and Puritans, and even some of your "fellow sailors". I find that usually works.

Not all of history is fun though. Even I have to concede that. There are parts of history that I will barely discuss or mention or not even study, maybe, because I find it boring. (case in point: The Catholic Church, the Byzantine Empire, Ancient Greece, and the Incas.) Those are my boring spots: everything else I'm eager to learn. But even if you bear a hatred to all types of history, you should still try to at least learn one thing about it. You'll seem smarter, you'll be a better person because of it because you'll learn how something somewhere affected someone, and humans in general have done some pretty crazy things.

Take the Amber Room, my most recent Triviality column. Could you ever have imagined a whole room a quarter the size of a football field covered in amber? It's amazing even to me and I've spent a lot of time researching it and knowing it as such.

History is not without its weak points. It's biased. Remarkably. That's a history student's job - to cover everything equally. From the 1500s to about 1950, Europe ruled the world in empires and monarchies. As a result, we have classes that only cover Europe. We have textbooks that cover the British monarchy in 3 chapters and only a paragraph is devoted to slavery in Africa, or what-have-you. It's important to look beyond the historical bias and look at the larger picture. (I'm slightly to blame - I've devoted columns to Dutch empires, Danish kings and Spanish colonial systems. I am making it my job to discuss other aspects of history.) But we are getting better, which equality in all aspects of society, which is just awesome! It's pretty amazing, when you see how everything can work out together. There will be always be shining moments in history, even in the darkest of moments.

What's your favorite part about history?


13 August 2013

The Amber Room Explained

Rob's Note: I'm done with labelling Trivialities by Roman numerals. I love Roman numerals, I do, but sooner or later we'll get to Triviality MMLXXIX or something (though 1979's pretty unlikely) and yeah. Now every Triviality will just be a topic followed by "explained". Not that it matters, but if you're looking for the latest Trivialities, they'll just be labelled as explained. :P

Who's in the mood for treasure? :)

I've been meaning to discuss this very fascinating subject around the time of VOC, when I wrote it, but I never got to it. I simply forgot. I've known about this topic for a long time, based on a certain overpriced unnamed children's book series about history. But what that book series told about the Amber Room was very little, and most was speculation. This post may have some wistfullness in it, but just bear with my nerdness. To set the record straight through all the secrets and stuff, well, that's today's mission.

First off: what is amber? C10 H16 O. :) (Or, for those who love Fringe, it's the stuff the Parallel Universe uses to seal off wormholes. Amber 31422...but I digress. We're not in the Altverse today.) :

What's the Amber Room, then? The Amber Room was a room made of amber, as you've probably guessed. "But wait!" I hear you calling. "What's amber, anyhow? Who would make a room made of amber? Wouldn't it break because amber tends to become brittle and harden with age and completely crumble? And how would it last?" These are all good questions. Your answers...

The book/card/online melange that started
it all, pretty much. Not the construction. My
interest. :P
Photo Credit: Scholastic!

The history of this (faux) gilded room began in the early 1700s, when the King of Prussia (if you've forgotten your world history lessons, Prussia was mostly Germany and Poland, especially the coasts) decided to create a room for himself of amber. He hired architects from Germany, Denmark, and Russia to help create this magnificent, dizzying work of art.

So how did it in end up in Russia? Some fifteen years later, Peter the Great was on a visit and he admired the room greatly. The king had changed - it wasn't the original one who had commissioned the room - so he decided to give it to Peter as a peace offering in 1716, hoping for an alliance against Sweden.

How do you move a room? "Very carefully, in little tiny pieces. And then they put it back together again," as Patrick Carman put it in a chat I had the pleasure of attending back in 2009.

Basically they took the pieces apart and shipped them in lots of boxes to Russia, where it was put together in the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg (or St. Petersburgh, if you're Mary Shelley.)

Some forty years later, in 1755, Czarina Elisabeth decided to move it to her palace, the elegantly named Catherine Palace at Tsarskoye Selo (for the unlinguisted, including me, that's The Czar's Village). With her, and Catherine the Great, the two immediately embellished it, making it even more dramatic, opulent, beautiful, and star-studded than it had ever been. More sheets of amber were imported from Italy, jewels were added around the walls and ornaments to make it shinier. It took over 15 years, and in the end it was just dizzying. It was now around 592 whopping feet square (about 55 square metres for the metrics).

How much? Historians estimate that in today's money, it'd have cost $142 million dollars (more by now, it's inflation that's tricky). In addition to amber, the walls had gold behind them to support. It was that opulent. I can't even describe it (for why we shall presently see.)

So the room was there for almost 2 centuries. Then it all...disappeared.

Photo Credit: Roland Weihrauch /dpa /Corbis

"How did a giant room of fossilised insects disappear, Rob?"

The same way said room traveled to two different places in just 50 freakin' years. (Treasure can be really cool if learned about the right way. See? Rooms that move!)

During WWII, the Nazis were pretty much trying to find everything shiny and pretty to glorify themselves. A room made of fossilised stone and animals? Sure. In a name that was surely picked out of an Italian textbook, "Operation Barbarossa" was basically an excuse for the plundering and taking of art treasures. Since Prussia used to be part of Germany, the Nazis wanted it, naturally.

So the Russians desperately tried hiding it, covering it up with wallpaper, but remember, amber's brittle, and how do you hide a room, anyway? (The only question I can't answer today.) It didn't work. Himmler found out, and the Amber Room was immediately swarmed with insects who broke free from the amber Nazi curators and artists who knew how to take it out, the same way it was done in 1755 and 1716.

This is a close-up of a little piece. Some
have insects inside, some don't. All
carbon, hydrogen, oxygen. Isn't chemistry
Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Reports from this point get sketchy. Some say it was placed in a castle which was destroyed in an air raid. Some say it was taken in a submarine to Berlin and bombed on the way. Some say aliens. Either way, it was never seen again. Except for two pieces, oddly, which were stolen by some soldiers, and given to their families, and which were passed down through the years. One was a mosaic, which the family had no idea how it had gotten into their family. (Most likely a war trophy.)

All hope is not lost, though. A few decades ago, the Russians decided to rebuild the room for national pride. It took lots of efforts in part by the German and Russian governments, and many people donated. Those two pieces I mentioned above were tracked down and placed. In the end, after more than 30 years, the brand-new Amber Room was unveiled by President Vladimir Putin in 2003, in time for the (almost) 300-year anniversary of the Room's turbulent history. It cost about $11 million and is on display for all of us to see (well, those who want to hop on a plane to Russia and look at a room. I would!)

See? Treasure can be fun. :) Depends on what kind of treasure. And for the record, when insects get put into amber, they are converted to inorganic (not living) material. Sorry, Jurassic Park. You just wanted to be alive again, didn't you, dinosaurs... :) And Fringe Amber, too.


Sources: Wikipedia, The Black Circle (not a lot, though), US News, Smithsonian.

Click here to see last week's Triviality.

06 August 2013

Triviality XV: Catalogo Alfabetico de Apellidos

Another column related to empires and a foreign name. Just like the VOC! Unfortunately this doesn't have a cool symbol that is aesthetically pleasing.

Today's topic is the Catalogo Alfabetico de Apellidos, which is Spanish for The Alphabetical Catalogue of Last Names. It's exactly what it sounds like, an catalogue of last names in alphabetical last names.

Why is it interesting? You shall see in due course. As you may know, I enjoy names - giving them to characters in my stories, sure, but more importantly, changing my own. As a budding writer I enjoy writing my stories under different, exotic names, and this is where the column comes in. Because I enjoy adopting many nom de plumes, monikers and pseudonyms. (Some of my more memorable: Kodiak Marlitaine, Fra Charletoir, Duc de Rimbaud, Marc Trevani, and Jackson Kirkland.)

Back to the column. What is this list? The answer: a list that the Spanish government created for the Filipino peoples in the 1800s, who were under their rule. This is evident in the last names of many Filipinos, who have Hispanic last names.

Some history: While Europe was busy ruling the world, as we all know, Spain was ruling the Philippine Islands. Of course the Spaniards were busy converting the natives to Christianity, and so as a result many chose new names for themselves. It got to a point where many Filipinos were picking the same names (de los Santos, de los Reyes, etc) which, for the Spaniards, was a nightmare for census and tax purposes. In addition, it was just really confusing for people to not have last names, or even worse, different members of the same family having different names!

As a result in 1849, the Governor General of the Philippines, Narciso Claveria y Zaldua, (not gonna comment on that name being so close to Narcissus) issued a decree to stop this confusion once and for all. He created a list of last names for everyone living on the islands (and other islands around the East Indies).

The list itself was not terribly long - only 150 or so pages, and wasn't terribly organized (it had spelling mistakes, and names weren't in alphabetical order in some cases) and more. It skipped some letters (but that's okay, because Spanish didn't have an I at the time, and it sure doesn't have a W unless it's a foreign word).

It's worth mentioning that not all of the names were Spanish. Many of them were. However the Governor General was known for his concerns for the peoples and would often talk to many of them to see what he could do to make their lives better. As a result many names were culled from local tribes and families, to make it a bit more ethnic.

A copy was sent to every local head of state of the island, for the families to pick their names. However it was extremely disorganized. Several islands and barangays (a sort of village) did follow the decree extremely strictly, but some leaders were extremely lackluster, sending only parts of the book to certain villages (so one village would end up with everyone having a last name beginning with G, or H) and some leaders just ignored it. (Some say that you can tell where a person comes from by the letter of their last name. I'm awaiting confirmation on that.)

For the most part the catalog worked and as a result everyone got last names, and naming order was at last established. Mostly. :)


Click here to see last week's Triviality.

02 August 2013

Country Facts I: Oceania

At long last - Country Facts!

This is the first column about country facts here on InfiniteMind! What are Country Facts? Exactly what the name sounds like: country facts! Each column will deal with countries that are related to each other, whether it be by name, or population, or similarities in latitude/area, or even continent.

This is the only one that is ordered by continent, namely the continent (region, if you want to get technical) of Oceania: the Pacific islands! (Australia and New Zealand are not counted, they will be in a different post.)

This column will run every two weeks, on alternating  Fridays. This is so you and me don't get overloaded by trivia columns (remember, Trivialities are supposed to be weekly. I'm not changing that. This column should be done by the end of the year, maybe sooner if I hurry up.)

Here are 12 weird and interesting facts about the sadly often-forgotten, beautiful islands of the South Seas.

But first off, a little bit on Oceania and at least what it is.

Many people think Australia is a continent. You could say that. There's no definite answer. We've been debating it since Captain Cook and the whalers discovered it and there won't be an end. However, the Pacific has quite a lot of islands and of course people live on those islands.

As a result we can't leave those poor islands alone without a continent so many geographers use the region of Oceania instead. My Quantum Pad refers to it as "Australia and the Regions of Oceania". As a result there are 14 nations. One borders Indonesia yet because of plate tectonics and stuff it's considered Oceania. There's Australia, New Zealand, and the other islands I'll list here.

1. Nauru
(unofficial) Capital: Yaren district
Ah, Nauru. If you don't count Vatican City, it's the smallest country by area and population. You can literally jog around the 13-mile island in an hour. It's also the fattest country in the world: 97% of all Nauru men and women are overweight. However, there really isn't a lot of fast food on the island; it's more a matter of them eating too much. How did this come around? In the '60s and '70s, Nauru was the richest country in the world due to phosphate mining, which has since left the island stripped of resources, poor, and exploited.

2. Marshall Islands
Capital: Majuro
The Marshall Islands is home to the Bikini Atoll. (The bikini came out the same week that nuclear testing began on the Atoll, hence its name.) However due to exhaustive nuclear tests in WWII and beyond, today the atoll is uninhabitable. (What's an atoll? A ring shaped coral rim. This is the edge of one, in Hawaii.)

3. Papua New Guinea
Capital: Port Moresby
Papua New Guinea is the country with the most languages spoken, with over 830 languages spoken between 4 million people, which makes the country extremely diverse and multiglottal. As a result English is usually spoken in important matters like law and such, because it's a common language that puts everyone at a disadvantage.

4. (Federated States of) Micronesia
Capital: Palikir
This four-island nation has the US Dollar as currency. This dates back from when the US pretty much controlled half the Pacific region, including some of the nations on here. As a result when Micronesia got its independence they really didn't see a point in changing the money that the people were used to and so to this day they use the US Dollar.

5. Fiji
Capital: Suva
In 1867, a missionary named Thomas Baker was subject to cannibalism along with some of his followers. It's notable because he was the last person to be cannibalized in the country. While he was originally welcomed in the local village where he was preaching, somehow the tribe got angry.

A beach in Fiji. Photo Credit: Wikipedia
6. Samoa
Capital: Apia
Not the cookies - there's an actual country called Samoa! Before called "Western" Samoa, and not to be confused with American Samoa, this tiny island nation decided to "move" west of the International Date Line, to join Asia and Australia. (The IDL used to go right through the island.)

7. Kiribati
Capital: Tarawa
First, make sure you pronounce this 33-island nation correctly! Kiribati is pronounced keer-i-bas (i as in hit). The "ti" sounds like an "s" in the language. And where does this interesting name come from? It's the local pronunciation of Gilberts, because the islands used to be called the Gilbert Islands, named after their British discoverer. Try to see if you can make Gilbert sound like Kiribati. 

8. Palau
Capital: Koror
This tiny nation is barely twice the size of Washington, D.C. and due to its relative closeness to Guam and Japan, is one of the most known and visited islands in the entire Oceanic region.

9. Tuvalu
Capital: Funafuti
This country is made up of nine islands and several atolls, and its highest point is no more than 15 feet above sea level. Due to the country being so flat, it is estimated that it will be one of the first places to go when global warming and rising sea levels reach their full potential.

Photo Credit: Wikipedia
10. Vanuatu
Capital: Port-Vila
James Michener visited these islands, among others, in World War II. Vanuatu, in particular, inspired a novel of short stories that he would title South Pacific, becoming a great success in America. It would later become a Tony Award-winning musical in 1951.

11. Tonga
Capital: Nuku'alofa
Tonga is one of the last remaining monarchies left in the world, after its citizens successfully resisted all European attempts to make it a colony, which is really rare. However, in 1900 Tonga did have a treaty with Britain for protection. The present king is King Tupou VI. He has been making several reforms, however, to make Tonga a more democratic and modern state, including ceding most of his power to the Prime Minister.

12. Solomon Islands
Capital: Honiara
Like most of the countries on this list, Solomon Islands saw some pretty heavy fighting in World War II. The most populous island of Guadalcanal, for example, was the site of a very bloody battle. It lasted six months and more than 38,000 people on both sides died.

Now that you've read all these facts, interested in a quiz on the countries? No cheating! :)


Sources: Wikipedia, The Kingdom of Tonga, National Geographic, The World Factbook

30 July 2013

Triviality XIV: The Askesian Society

Rob's Note: Shortest Triviality column you'll probably get all year, because I say so. >:D Actually, the subject is interesting but there really isn't a lot about it to discuss. So I'll just lay down the bare facts and you can extrapolate from there, how does that sound? :)

I've also updated some more pages to make them more interesting and comprehensive, so take a look!

Also remember to check out the first Country Facts column on Friday!

So, what was this society? Certainly not like last time's Round Table. They were vicious. These people? They were more insane.

The Askesian Society was a scientific club in London that was around for about 10 years or so, back in the early 1800s. Very short lived. But I'll get to that more later.

That word, "askesian"? It comes from the Greek word askesis which means "training".

This club was officially for "debating" and talking about scientific theories. One member even wrote a book about clouds. Because, you know, people liked talking about clouds back then and thought themselves mighty smart for doing so. (We sort of do that today. Just not about clouds. Unless you're a meteorologist. Or whatever. No offense.)

The founder was a William Allen, a scientist, of course, who let his laboratory be used for the club's benefit, so its members could be used to perform scientific experiments.

However, if Mr. Bill Bryson is to be trusted (and he generally is), the most interesting thing about this little club were their "laughing gas evenings". Yes, it's exactly what it sounds like.

Several evenings the club would get together. Some people would take nitrous oxide (aka N2O, aka laughing gas, aka anesthesia) and stagger around the theatre where the club met. It was hilarious (apparently) and lots of fun, and many members would do it just to get intoxicated by the N2O. They were the original drug takers. *shrugs*

As Bill Bryson puts it in his excellent book A Short History of Nearly Everything, a book you really should read if you like science,

In the early 1800s there arose in England a fashion for inhaling nitrous oxide, or laughing gas, after it was discovered that its use 'was attended by a highly pleasurable thrilling.' For the next half century it would be the drug of choice for young people. One learned body, the Askesian Society, was for a time devoted to little else. Theaters put on 'laughing gas evenings' where volunteers could refresh themselves with a robust inhalation and then entertain the audience with their comical staggerings.

The club was disbanded in 1807 after being around for 11 years. But good news! In 2007 the club was restarted in honor of the 200th anniversary. They still meet in London, and you can pay a fine of seven pounds to talk about science and philosophy. No word yet on laughing gas evenings, though. We can't have everything in life. *shrugs*


Click here to go to the last Triviality.

Sources: Wikipedia, A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson. The above quote belongs to Bill Bryson from the above named book.

28 July 2013

Book Review: The Count of Monte Cristo

I don't often do reviews, but I had to do this one. It was such an amazing book and I'd like to share my thoughts on it.

Some mild spoilers and plot devices, nothing serious.

The Count of Monte Cristo
by Alexandre Dumas, pere
5/5 stars

"All of human wisdom is summed up in these two words: wait and hope."

Photo Credit: Goodreads

So says the final line of the more-than-1000-page book that I finished reading for a week. But don't let that throw you off. The Count of Monte Cristo is not a boring book at all. It is long. I will say that. If you want a book that you can finish in an hour and call it a day, this book is not for you.

If, however, you want a book that you can take your time on, a book that will keep you wondering about the plot and characters even when you're not reading it, a book that has so many twists and turns to make it exciting and dramatic, then this is the book for you.

For a book revolving around several families, at least 50 different characters, and in a character chart that looks like this, the plot is astonishingly simple. A young sailor, Edmond Dantes, returns home successful from a voyage. Everyone's impressed with him: he's young, handsome, soon to be married to a beautiful girl, and to be promoted captain on his next voyage. Everyone, that is, except two people: his first mate and his fiancee's cousin. They're jealous of him. They're evil. The former wants his position and glory. The latter wants his girl. So they write a letter framing him for siding with Napoleon (this was in 1815) and Edmond is taken away by an unjust procurer and sent to prison for life.

While in prison, Edmond never loses hope. He stays there years and years, and finally, when he plans to starve himself, another prisoner breaks into his cell with some tools. (The original dig-through-your-cell-with-spoons trick.) With the help of this very interesting prisoner, Edmond learns the ways of the world and learns to be a cold, sauve, calculating person who has the power to inflict revenge on those three who made him suffer. This prisoner tells Edmond of a secret treasure hidden on the island of Monte Cristo. Eventually Edmond escapes from prison after fourteen years, and finds the treasure on Monte Cristo. He becomes The Count of Monte Cristo (along with a handful of aliases, the best part) and begins the slow, revengeful plot to wreak havoc.

All of that is just in the first 200 pages. Wow. The rest of the novel does not disappoint, unless you're really sure that you want something to happen and it doesn't. But if you look at the novel through the tragedies Edmond suffered, there really is a lot going for him. And it does turn out satisfying in the end. But be careful. Telling someone you really like this book will say a lot about you. It does for me. It's wickedly evil, delightfully dramatic (they have so many altercations in the Paris Opera it's amazing) and has a lot of allusions. That's another thing.

(I'd recommend you know The Arabian Nights, just the backdrop. Monte Cristo likes his Arabian Nights, and frequently references them without explaining. You might want to look into that. Also into several factors from Roman times. I can't give any names without giving away major plot details, but just try to look up the references as they come to not be confused. And, of course, know Napoleon's time. They do have a lot of hatred, those Royalists and Bonapartists...)

In a book of over 1000 pages, sometimes you might despair. I did twice. "It isn't gonna finish! Oh no! He hasn't done anything!" Yes, it can seem that way many times. But unlike certain books (War and Peace, Les Miserables) the prose is fluid and you can really understand it. But even I read it in degrees. I read roughly 100-300 pages per day, and I took breaks. Unless you're really hooked, read it in pieces. I read maybe 20 pages at a time, then stopped to eat or whatever. Or just stopped to take it in. You WILL be thinking about it often. So yeah. Take it easy and enjoy the ride.

Another thing: Don't get the abridged version. How do you know if it's abridged? It has about 600 pages, and COMPLETELY skips a scandalous affair that is super important, some illegitimate children, attempted killing of a newborn, a drug trip, a lesbian relationship (don't worry, nothing's explicit out of any of these) and a lot more. You could read the abridged version but you'd miss so much and you'll be confused. But for a truly rewarding journey about betrayal, revenge, love, hope, and treachery, read this book in its thousand-page-plus entirety. You'll never be bored.

Click here to buy the book on Amazon. Click here to read it for free on Project Gutenberg (but some people don't like that version. I really don't know about such things, though.)


27 July 2013

The North: An Epistolary

[Copied from Robert Miranda's Journal, Sunday]

The Eisenhower Interstate Highway System requires that one mile in every five must be straight, to be usable as airstrips in times of war or other emergencies.

I was thinking about this over and over again while looking out at the pristine Californian coast on the way to Santa Barbara this morning, wondering if there would be any truth to it. I'd known about this little gem for a while already, but, like most everything else that's found on the Internet, there's no way of proving if it was truth. Didn't seem to be true, though. We have a tendency to have very weird freeways. But that's part of the state's charm. [Edit on Tuesday 23rd: Just drove through the PCH. Yeah, it's not true.]

As someone who rarely leaves the Southern California enclave made up of my hometown and the bordering cities I've grown up in and patronized the last 15 years, not 10 minutes from LA's downtown, the fact of seeing towns with less than 10,000 people was disturbing. I have been to Hawai'i twice: it was overpopulated but they were islands. To see towns devoid of people, to see paths empty of cars and any pollution that is a hallmark of Los Angeles - was interesting, and a little disturbing, as I've mentioned. Once one passes Santa Barbara, there is nothing but empty fields, the beginning of wine country.

Welcome to Central California. Population? Looks to be zero.

[Excerpt from Robert Miranda's Phonograph Diary, Monday]

Solvang was extremely interesting. Unfortunately it's really hot and that's a bit annoying. I liked the town, we've been here for, like, about fifteen hours.

There is no nightlife. At all. Not that that's a bad thing, but it's kind of depressing to walk through the streets at dusk and yet there's no one in the streets besides the entourage. There was light still, it's summer, of course, but to see everything closed? Thank goodness we found a restaurant.

It's really quaint. Really. I wouldn't live here, though. I do wish we had gone to a bakery, there's one across the street! But it doesn't look like we're going...Well most everyone's had enough. To the north!

[Excerpt from Robert Miranda's Journal, Monday]

The drive up to Cambria San Simeon was really cool. Enjoyed the view. We didn't get as much sea in the view as we did yesterday. But apparently going up to Monterey we'll get a better view.

There's golf here. We're in a lodge kind of place. Nothing much going on the rest of the day. Everyone's relaxing...I'm going to sit in the patio on the back of our room and read Monte Cristo. There's six chapters left.

[Excerpt from Robert Miranda's Journal, Tuesday]

It's really hard to write in the Hummer, but since I can't talk into my recording device to make a voice journal I'm using this. Hearst Castle was awesome. Alex Trebek was the tour guide! Well he was the voice on the tour bus. AWESOME. But the house was awesome. Very Gothic. I need to look into studying architecture when I get home. Going up to Monterey, should be there in 3 hours.

[Excerpt from Robert Miranda's Phonograph Diary, Wednesday]

It's me again. Where to begin? I was on Cannery Row just now. I can't find my journal anywhere. If I lost it, oh well. I'm going to record my terrible voice for the entire remainder of the journey. It's easier that way. [Edit on Friday: Found in my suitcase.]

Monterey highway...oh, I'm not even going to describe it. It was fun but terrifying at the same time. I don't scare easily but some of those drops...it took an hour to drive eight miles. And I thought that only happened in LA. Then again they were curves.

We drove past Carmel. Bohemian town! Ah, La Boheme...but we're in Pacific Grove so that's slightly depressing. But Monterey's not ten minutes away so we went to the Bay Aquarium (the Aquarium of the Pacific is better, in my opinion.) We went out to Cannery Row where I bought the Steinbeck book, Cannery Row. I bought Cannery Row at Cannery Row! That's awesome! We saw a Steinbeck wax museum which was interesting. And then there was more but I won't go into that.

[Excerpt from a hotel notepad. Thursday]

So far this journey has been great. I wanted to go to Frisco, though, today when we went to San Jose but could not because we have to head home because Sunday my uncle works. Went to the Winchester Mansion and had a weird tour guide. He reminded me of someone...

We toured Seaside and the rest of Monterey, namely the wharf and the marina. We saw seals. To be honest I'm not a fan of nature, one of the reasons I didn't like the beach at San Simeon. Everyone else did. I like the stuff no one else likes. No one liked the Winchester Mansion but me. That shows I'm clearly an eccentric. The Hearst Castle was another perfect example. The Roman pool. But I won't get into that.

[Transcribed from both sides of a business card. Friday]

Going home. Travelled total: 900 miles. Wish it was longer. Can't have everything. -RM
Licence Plates seen: California, Colorado, Oregon, Washington, Nevada, Utah, Arizona, Texas, Oklahoma, Mississippi, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Maine, Ohio, Illinois, Wyoming, and Quebec. No Hawaii.


19 July 2013

News Of A Sort

My dear readers, I am dreadfully sorry for being sort of distant. Besides the usual triviality every week, I haven't really discussed much this past month. For that, I am sorry.

To begin, I've been reading. I've read Frankenstein (for the third time, I'm reading it for my Inglishe class now, and yes, Inglishe is spelled that way for me, because Sir Walter Raleigh spelled it that way in a death confession, or something or other.). I've also read Dracula, because I'd never read it before. Very disturbing and very good. An excellent work. And now, I am reading The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas, pere (basically a French title which means "dad" which distinguishes him from his son, another well-known writer.) It's 1055 pages long! And so far, two days and 506 pages in, it does not disappoint, apart from a small boring sojourn entitled "Pyramus and Thisbe", a little chapter that is just too flowery.

So why am I saying all this? Why am I rambling awkwardly about life? Well, readers - I'm going on vacation for the next week, and I am considering writing an epistolary story on the experience. I know I'm bad at posting stories online aside from the odd excerpt every few months or so, but maybe I'll be better at revealing this time.

There may or may not be a Triviality next week - for sure Country Facts will be reserved for its revealing in two weeks, on August 3rd. I'm sorry about that, but the countries I want to start the column off are rather obscure for the Internet and my encyclopedias, sorry. :( As to Triviality, I may write a column tomorrow before leaving, and post it on Tuesday if my laptop gets Internet access.

This is just a heads up. Before I sign off for a week, I put forward this challenge to my readers: a game of sorts. I may continue it, sort of as a points game, we'll see. I will post some song lyrics. The first person to comment with the correct song is the winner of the round, with some 10 points. Anyone else who posts (maybe with a semi-correct answer or something) will get 5 points. Let's see how this goes!

Sing with me, sing for the year, sing for the laughter, sing for my tears...

To the next!

16 July 2013

Triviality XIII: The Algonquin Round Table

Greetings from a sunny summer's day! I have finally updated all of the pages on the tab above, so why not click on them and peruse them in peace? I have a new page, too: The Trivia page! It contains links to all of my previous trivialities, and will have a random fact of the day (changed about every midday). -Rob

When looking up witty people, a mention of the Algonquin Round Table is usually quite inevitable. You hear about it usually in conjunction with the 1920s, sometimes on Jeopardy and in books. So what was it?

The Algonquin Round Table (or Vicious Circle, as some of the members called it) was a group of extremely witty intellectuals and writers who got together every day for lunch at the Algonquin Hotel in New York City. For about 10 years, this group of amazing people would get together and just discuss goings on, play games, and do what they did best - be witty and sophisticated.

Caricature of the Round Table.
Photo Credit: PBS

There were about 20 or so people in this circle, but they often left and joined at will so there's really just a rough list. Members include the well-known columnist Dorothy Parker, critic Alexander Woolcott, writer Edna Ferber, actress Tallulah Bankhead, writer Margaret Pulitzer, Marx brother Harpo, New Yorker founder Harold Ross, playwright George Kaufman, columnist Heywood Broun and his wife, Ruth Hale, and writer Robert Benchley. Rarely in history have such amazing and brilliant people come together in a show of brilliance.

So, how did this interesting group of people get together? Ironically - it was all part of a practical joke to welcome back war correspondent Alexander Woolcott, who was away in Europe during World War I. The idea was to welcome him back in a sort of "roast", to make fun at the war and at him in a lighthearted way. All of his writer and journalist friends were invited to the event, which would take place at the Algonquin Hotel.

The event was a success - so successful that those in attendance agreed it should be a "thing" - and thus the Vicious Circle was born, or as Edna Ferber called it, "The Poison Squad". Every day for lunch they would get together and just discuss things that were going on - in society, their jobs, life, anything! Originally they would sit at a long dining table in the middle of the lunch room of the hotel, "the Board", as they called it. (They once had a waiter called Luigi, prompting someone to call them "the Luigi (Ouija) Board."

Dorothy Parker.
Photo Credit: Flickr
But it was hotel manager Frank Cage who got the "Round Table" name for them. He eventually moved them to a private corner with a round table. The "Round Table" was born. And they enjoyed it. The members would each quote each other in their columns. They'd insult and make merciless fun at each other freely. With friends like them, who'd need enemies? They had high standards, high amounts of wit and sarcasm, and high friends. (They were eventually the talk of America during the late '20s.) They'd create word games and have fun at them, including Dorothy Parker's famous line, spoken when asked to use the word horticulture in a sentence,
"You can lead a horticulture, but you can't make her think."
At one point, in 1923, the Round Table created a revue (a sort of play) called No Sirree! The actors and actresses in the group acted, the writers and critics wrote and sang lyrics, and even famous violinist Jascha Heifetz played the violin for the show. Unfortunately it was a failure, but it would represent the only time the group got together to work for a project. It did, however, help launch a Hollywood career for 'Tabler" Robert Benchley.

Harold Ross, EIC.
Photo Credit: Wikipedia
In 1925, Harold Ross, one of the "Circle", decided to open his own magazine, The New Yorker. Today it is one of the most well-known magazines in all of America. The members would enjoy writing for it and quoting it. Today the Algonquin hands out free copies to its guests, in honor of Ross.

By 1927, the group seemed to start falling apart. America's eye was on these brilliant individuals - people would crowd the lunch room of the Algonquin to stare at them, making them uncomfortable and hard-pressed to talk - and some members started leaving. Others found new jobs in other cities, making them leave New York. The Sacco and Vanzetti court case - a very famous murder case that was headlines for a very long time - made Dorothy Parker and others depressed. Eventually, with nothing to discuss and write about, the group disbanded around 1929.

The most ironic thing is that many years after, many members would criticize the group, disparaging it later in life. Many felt that while "serious writers" such as Fitzgerald, Stein, Hemingway and Lardner were writing, they were just wasting time and doing nothing. However, their contributions to literature and wit are considerable. They were truly some of history's best and brightest people, no matter how cutthroat they were.

Click here to see last week's Triviality.


Source Material: Flickr article, Algonquin Hotel, PBS, Wikipedia, Round Table