The Blog

Happy 30th Birthday Monterey Aquarium!

I am, I confess, a big ol’ fan of marine life. I love to go to Aquariums. Love it. I am entranced by sea life. Take me whale watching and you can see me faint with happiness. Find me an otter and hear me squee with joy. Thus, I think it appropriate that I salute the Monterey Bay Aquarium, which first opened it’s doors 30 years ago on October 20, 1984. 

The aquarium is famously built on Cannery Row in the building which formerly housed the Hovden sardine cannery.  Although it was originally marine biologists at Stanford University’s Hopkins Marine Station who brain-stormed the idea of building an aquarium on the bay, the aquarium wouldn’t have become reality without a $40 million philanthropical grant from David Packard (co-founder of Hewlett-Packard). 

The aquarium has recently rolled out an exhibit dedicated to cephalopods, aptly named “Tentacles”. I approve, because it turns out that my favorite cephalopod (yes, I have a favorite cephalopod; I am a nerd), the octopus, is surprisingly smart in a way that baffles current scientific paradigms. Inasmuch as the octopus has a tiny brain, it was assumed the octopus was a stimulus-response creature on par with the clam. Although it turns out that the octopus has a big brain for an invertebrate, it is still the owner of a wee brain compared to a vertebrate animal.

The octopus, in short, is smart when it ought NOT to be.

It has long been held as a scientific truth that brain size to body ratio determined the potential intelligence or consciousness of a species. However, that paradigm is having to shift. It turns out that many animals can be very “smart” – i.e can communicate and perform complex behaviors – without a ‘big’ brain or a brain analogous to the human brain. Birds, which don’t have a neocortex like humans. It has long be supposed that a big neocortex is what makes humans smart. For example, “humans have a large neocortex as a percentage of total brain matter when compared with other mammals … there is only a 30:1 ratio of neocortical gray matter to the size of the medulla in the brainstem of chimpanzees, while the ratio is 60:1 in humans.” Scientists were therefore flabbergasted to learn that:

Finches use strict rules of syntax. New Caledonian crows show the advanced capability of metacognition, as well as counting, making and using tools as well or better than many nonhuman primates (see also), and displaying remarkable memory. Crows also remember specific people, cars, and urban situations and hold grudges with specific people and cars for several years. Some birds show advanced planning and art. Alex, the world renowned African Grey parrot, did arithmetic, mastered same-different relationships, invented words, and the night before he died told his doctor friend that he loved his friend and researcher, Dr. Irene Pepperberg.”

Likewise, the octopus has a brain even “less” human-like or developed than a bird but displays behaviors, like playing and learning, that refutes the current paradigm of interspecies brain function.  The more we learn about the octopus, the more impressive the cephalopod becomes. If you want to know more about this amazing animal, I recommend Katherine Harmon Courage’s book Octopus! The Most Mysterious Creature in the Sea.

Also, this backpack:

octopus backpack

Again, best birthday wishes to Monterey Bay Aquarium,  the place working to understand and conserve fascinating sea life like the octopus! 

Prince Edward of Lancaster

Today is the birthday of Edward of Westminster (or Lancaster), the son of king Henry VI and Margaret of Anjou. He was the touchstone for the War of the Roses and the only heir apparent to the English throne to be killed in battle. Edward of Lancaster should have been king Edward IV when his father died, but another Edward took his place on the throne;  his cousin Edward, the 4th Duke of York and the eldest surviving son of Richard Plantagenet 3rd duke of York), became king Edward IV following a political coup against Henry VI and the death of the Prince of Wales during the Battle of Tewkesbury.

Susan Higginbotham wrote an excellent novel about Margaret of Anjou, entitled The Queen of Last Hopes, which covered the historical high points of Prince Edward’s life and death. Higginbotham’s book, told from his mother’s point of view, is amazingly historically accurate and leaves the reader with a decided bias in favor Lancastrians.

According to Higginbotham, Margaret of Anjou “continues to be so maligned by novelists and even some writers of nonfiction is that much of the material that is available about her (especially online) is out of date or based on dated or discredited sources.” For one thing, her reputation was besmirched by allegations that Edward of Lancaster was not the legitimate son of Henry VI, but there is no evidence to support these rumors. Moreover, the people behind the scandal needed an excuse to steal the throne from her son. Margaret fought back, with vigor and determination, and Higginbotham points out that “the loyalty of Margaret to her husband and to her son is depicted as the power-mad reaction of a vengeful woman. Evidently her modern-day detractors feel that she should have settled back and worked on tapestries while her son was being deprived of his crown.”

Her son, whose birthright was stolen from him by the men who killed him, has also been falsely depicted as bloodthirsty. He was certainly eager to fight the men who were holding his mentally ill father as a captive and ruling England in his stead, but this is perhaps understandable. Henry VI was in the throes of hallucinations and perhaps schizophrenia when Edward of Lancaster was born on October 13, 1453. Until the birth of the prince, Richard Plantagenet had been Henry’s heir. Richard was unhappy about being displaced; he and his followers quickly made accusations of bastardy against the newborn. Prince Edward was only six when his father was taken prisoner by the Earl of Warwick, one of York’s allies. Richard then ruled in the King’s place. Margaret marshaled her forces and a few months after her son turned seven she rescued her husband from Warwick and killed Richard Plantagenet. Nonetheless, her army could not take London from Plantagenet’s son Edward of York. With his access to the Tower of London, Edward of York had himself crowned king Edward IV in March of 1461.  Prince Edward’s parents were forced to flee to Scotland with their young son. Prince Edward spent the next nine years in exile and learning to fight so that he could one day reclaim his throne. Before Prince Edward could do that, however, Edward IV’s allies and brother turned against him and Henry VI was restored to the throne in 1470. It didn’t last long. Henry was a puppet king and his wife and son were banished to France. Soon, Henry was imprisoned in the Tower of London by his enemies once again.  Margaret and Prince Edward brought an army from France to rescue Henry and reclaim the throne. The Yorkists and Lancastrians fought on May 4th, 1471 and Prince Edward was slain. He was only 17 years old. With nothing left to fight for, Margaret surrendered. Henry VI conveniently died shortly there after, and Edward VI ruled England until his sudden death in 1483.

Now it was Edward’s young sons, Edward V and Richard of Shrewsbury, who were left to try to hold the throne while greedy nobles circled around them like sharks. The boys, known better as The Princes in the Tower, were declared illegitimate (just like Prince Edward of Lancaster has been) their uncle was declared to be the ‘real’ king and crowned Richard III. His queen was Prince Edward’s widow, Anne Neville.  The boys disappeared shortly thereafter, most likely murdered by Richard’s allies and possibly at his command.

Margaret of Anjou didn’t get to see the karmic irony of Edward’s teenage heir being killed by relatives who wanted the throne, since she had died a year earlier. Nor did she get to see that Richard III’s son, another Prince of Wales named Edward, would die in less than a year after Richard took the crown. Richard himself would be killed by Henry Tudor’s forces at the Battle of Bosworth Field.

Henry Tudor was crowned Henry VII and married Edward VI’s eldest daughter, Elizabeth of York, uniting the York and Lancaster factions. Elizabeth was the direct descendant of Edward III via his third son John of Gaunt’s legitimate offspring. Henry Tudor was also a direct descendant of Edward III via John of Gaunt’s illegitimate son John Beaufort. Neither of them had as much legal claim to the throne as Prince Edward of Lancaster, who was descended legitimately from John of Gaunt’s  first born son.

Trim Castle & St. Mary’s Abbey

Trim Castle, in County Meath, is a very picturesque pile of ruins nowadays:

Trim castle

more trim castle

However, in it’s heyday (the 12th to 16th centuries; so a paltry 400+ years) it was the largest Anglo-Norman castle in Ireland. It held a strategically important position because stood guard over a fording point across the River Boyne.

 river boyne at Trim

The River Boyne was big enough for boats to travel up it the 25 miles from the Irish Sea, which was handy for reinforcements and supplies.

Right next door to the castle is the ruin of the Augustinian order’s St. Mary’s Abbey. Almost the only thing left of the Abbey is ruins of the Yellow Steeple:

trim ruins

It should surprise no one that Henry VIII targeted this very rich catholic stronghold in Ireland. On 15 May 1542 the agents of Henry VIII forced St. Mary’s last abbot, Geoffry Dardice, to sign his own order of expulsion. They had to work up the nerve to burn of a the Abbey’s famous statue of Mary, which was said to facilitate miracles.  It wasn’t until August of 1548 that the statue of the Blessed Mother was consigned to the flames. The statues charred remains were preserved in the Catholic household of Laurence Hammond, but was finally completely destroyed on the orders of Sir Charles Coote during the Irish Rebellion of 1641. The English won the war, but shortly after the destruction of the statue Sir Charles Coote was shot and killed by Irish forces, which was believed by the locals to be the judgment of God against him. A few years later, the remains of the Yellow Steeple were reported to have been shelled by Oliver Cromwell’s troops during his invasion of Ireland. There is no proof it was Cromwell’s troops or Cromwell’s orders, but the generalized Irish hatred of Cromwell for his war atrocities makes him a good person to blame.

Considering that Oliver Cromwell’s actions edged up against genocide in his pursuit of Puritan domination of the British Isles, I’m willing to believe it’s all his fault too.

If you ever visit Ireland, County Meath is a must-see if you are any kind of a history or pre-history buff. It not only has Newgrange and Trim, it has the Tara, the Hill of Slane, Knowth, tons of Kells heritage, and Fourknocks.

Look at this Baby Elephant!!!

This may be the cutest video in the history of cute videos of baby animals! Watch what happens when the baby falls down on his cute little tushie:

His mother and “aunt” rush to his aid and then start, for lack of a better way of describing it, kissing the boo-boo and making it better. Moreover, the trumpeting calls sound exactly like they are saying, “Oh Sweetie! Do ‘oo fall down? Did it hurt its widdle bottom?”

Then they lead the little fellow to an easier path and give him cuddles and he gets some milk for extra comfort.

Which reminds me, a seriously pissed off elephant, a “tusker” (large bull elephant) that had killed three adults over the previous year, saved a baby girl’s life when he heard her crying. The bull elephant was attacking the house but stopped when he heard the baby. “The child’s father, Dipak Mahato, said they were having dinner around 8pm when they suddenly heard a “cracking sound” and then a huge crash from the bedroom. “We ran over and were shocked to see the wall in pieces and a tusker standing over our baby. She was crying and there were huge chunks of the wall lying all around and on the cot,” he said. “The tusker started moving away but when our child started crying again, it returned and used its trunk to remove the debris.”

Elephants are some seriously awesome charismatic mega fauna.

Newgrange: A Prehistoric Wonder of Ireland

My husband and I were lucky enough to visit Newgrange when we were in Ireland last year. It’s a passage tomb that was “built during the Neolithic or New Stone Age by a farming community that prospered on the rich lands of the Boyne Valley … Newgrange was constructed over 5,000 years ago (about 3,200 B.C.), making it older than Stonehenge in England and the Great Pyramid of Giza in Egypt.”

newgrange

We almost fainted from geeky joy when we saw it.  It was located in a beautiful chunk of the countryside, and very near the River Boyne (pictured below). The river is, like many places in Ireland, both lovely to look upon and historically significant. My favorite thing about it is that it is where Celtic legend says that Fionn mac Cumhail caught Fiontán, the Salmon of Knowledge.

The boyne

As for Newgrange itself, it is hard to express the weight of time you feel looking at it. The rocks ‘guarding’ the tomb are covered with symbols that no one has deciphered with any certainty: newgrange tour guide front stone

Ireland 19s

Ireland 19t

I think they look like drawings of water, which would make sense considering the Celtic worship of water deities and reverence for bodies of water. It was also a medium by which one could reach the afterlife and the divine. Sacrifices and gifts to gods and goddesses were made by casting precious things into the water. This was a burial chamber for bodies to return to the womb of the earth; having the symbol of water there to mark it holy seems theologically  consistent, to me.

The best part of the experience was when  we came out of the passage tomb; there was a rainbow arcing right over Newgrange!

newgrange rainbow

If you look closely, you can see that it was a double rainbow.

newgrange double rainbow

Contrary to myth, there was no pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Rather, there were cows. They peacefully grazed on the banks of the river, oblivious to the gasping wonder of the humans gawking at the rainbows.

rainbow cows

My husband and I were extremely happy.

I3

Visiting Dublin

I have noticed that other historical bloggers, especially those who live in the European Union, frequently post pictures of castles and historical landmarks they have seen. This is harder to do for me, inasmuch as I have rarely left the country. Worse, when I do go visit somewhere interesting, my photographic records are more piquant than picturesque.

For example, when I and my husband visited Dublin, Ireland.

I have the good sense to take a few lovely pictures worthy of notice, such as this one in St. Stephen’s Green: 

stephen's green umbrella

We were there in the fall and it was (of course) lightly raining and gorgeous beyond the telling.

However, I find myself taking pictures of things that amuse and entertain me more than I take pictures of things that enthrall me. For one thing, the pictures on the postcards are usually better than anything I can come up with.

That’s why I had to take a picture of this shirt with the sum of all things Irish upon it:

feck it

Alas and woe, the store was closed so I couldn’t buy it. Nevertheless, I have made an internal promise to myself that I shall one day possess this shirt. It shall be mine!

I also took pictures of  Irish signs, which are NOT done with subtlety. Unlike American signs, which prefer to hint at dog poop, Irish signs will make sure you cannot mistake their point:

graphic dog shit sign

It’s the graphic drop of steaming poo coming out of the dog’s bottom that really drives the point home, no?

We also saw more traditional things like St. Patrick’s Cathedral, where a helpful man took a picture of the jet-lagged author and her equally jet-lagged husband:

Ireland 18e

Odd, I don’t remember being so broad or having that many chins when I got on the plane to Ireland. Let’s all pretend my face is swollen from the flight. Also, let’s pretend my cloak is billowing out from the autumn breeze, rather from the size of my backside.

In spite of my propensity for taking pictures of less-than-historically-relevant things, I do have a few cool photos that are scenic or historical or both. I thought that might be of interest. Then I realized I was basically that annoying person who shows you photos of their vacation.

I’ll at least TRY to make them interesting, okay?

Wooly Bear v/s Yellow Bear

My husband, sweet man that he is, has been on the lookout for a wooly bear caterpillar for me so I can hazard as guess as to the winter weather in our neck of the woods. Today, he called me as I was returning from taking our daughter Buttercup to preschool.

Hubby: I found a wooly bear crawling across the patio and took a photo of it for you.

Me: Cool beans. Did it have a lot of orange? (I am emotionally invested in a mild winter)

Him: It was solid orange. Maybe we shouldn’t have packed the shorts away.

Me: Solid orange? Are you sure it was a wooly bear?

Him: Of course. *indignant snort*

Here’s the picture:

IMG_20140924_094837

I was suspicious that my Sweet Babou had photographed something other than a wooly bear, but what if there WAS such a thing as an orange wooly bear? I did some research using my Google-Fu. Lo & behold the caterpillar was not a wooly bear; it was a yellow bear caterpillar. They are very closely related, and are both the larval form of tiger moths. However, the yellow bear will grow up to be a Virginia Tiger Moth. Wooly bears become the Isabella Tiger Moth.

The coolest thing about tiger moth caterpillars is that they literally have anti-freeze in their cells so they can survive the winter. How awesome is that?

Now, all I need is to find a proper wooly bear …

Happy Fall Equinox!

Today is the first day of autumn (in the Northern Hemisphere), and it feels like it here in Bloomington, Indiana. The trees have about 1%-5% of their leaves with at least a tinge of color, and it’s sunny but cool. It’s one of those days that feels so perfect (to me) that it could have been arranged by Hollywood to star as “Perfect Fall Day”. Mother nature: the ultimate casting director?

All that is left to do is watch for classic signs of a hard winter. I was always taught that woolybear caterpillars were the best “weathermen” for that; if the orange ring in the middle is narrow, then winter will be harsh. You can also look for “spoons” in persimmon fruit.  My Appalachian grandmother also told us that the first frost would come six weeks after you heard the first of the fall crickets. Provided I didn’t just notice the fall crickets (always possible) and they have been chirping for weeks, first frost should hit around the week of Halloween.

Now, pardon me while I go stalk woolybear caterpillars.

The Tudor Society

A friend of mine, Claire Ridgway, who writes non-fiction books about the Anne and George Boleyn and who does not agree with the Kell/McCloud syndrome theory but is a nice person nonetheless, has launched The Tudor Society.

It is “an exclusive membership club for all those who love Tudor history and who want to keep learning more and more … lots of historians and authors want to be involved in this new society, and they are willing to give their time and knowledge to members of the Tudor Society, through magazine articles and talks.”

The Tudor Society has a small monthly/yearly fee to support the upkeep of the site and the production of the magazine and whatnot, but for a few dollars or pounds a month it:

  • Gives you the chance to learn from Tudor history experts in the comfort of your own home, wherever you are in the world and without having to worry about time zone differences
  • Puts experts in your reach so you can ask your own questions
  • Gives you a wide range of Tudor authorities through the monthly digital magazine, forum, chatroom and monthly expert talks
  • Is targeted specifically at the Tudor period
  • Gives you many ways to learn and interact – listen, read, chat and share
  • Offers monthly live online chats with experts
  • Helps you find the primary sources and books you need
  • Enables you to become quickly absorbed in the 15th and 16th centuries
  • Is fun – you can enjoy quizzes, giveaways and chats
  • Helps you get to know other Tudor history lovers

I am one of the many author/historians who will be giving my time to the site and my articles to the magazine, so I naturally want to see it thrive. If anyone is interested, just follow the link and sign up.

Hope to see you there!

Le écoles françaises sont mieux?

My two oldest daughters attend a very good American school. It is rated “A+” in our state. Moreover, the community in which we live voluntarily raised property taxes (more than 80% voted in favor of it) so that the schools could continue to have art, music, and PE and sufficient staff. The teachers are dedicated. The lunches are (like most schools) overly processed crap so I pack my girls’ food daily, but that is my only “complaint”.

Nevertheless, I feel great envy when I compare it to some of the practices in the French school system: particularly food and exercise.

Take school lunches for example. The food is prepared on site and the “fruits, vegetables, fish and meat are sourced locally, some of them from local farms,” according to Dany Cahuzac, the city counselor in charge of school matters, including the [lunchroom]. The local bakery delivers bread, a staple of every French meal, fresh every morning. And every two days, there is at least one organic item on the menu. Once a month, an entirely organic meal is served. The only drink offered at lunchtime is filtered tap water, served in glass pitchers …  As the children come streaming into the [lunchroom], they sit down at tables of four that are already set and wait for older student volunteers to bring the first course to their table. The child who sits at the designated “red” chair is the only one who is allowed to get up to fetch more water in the pitcher, extra bread for the bread basket, or to ask for extra food for the table. After finishing the first course (often a salad), volunteers bring the main course platter to the table and the children serve themselves. A cheese course follows (often a yogurt or small piece of Camembert, for example), and then dessert (more often than not, fresh fruit).  “We do our best to vary our menus throughout the weeks and months, but sometimes children don’t like certain foods,” explains Cahuzac. “We ask children to at least to taste everything and have a few bites before they give up on a food they don’t like.” “Eating a balanced meal while sitting down calmly is important in the development of a healthy child,” adds Cahuzac. “It helps them to digest food properly, avoid stomachaches and avoid sapped energy levels in the afternoon.”

My daughters get a 20 minute recess and a 30 minute gym class twice a week. What do French kids their age get?

Lucky for them, “elementary-aged students throughout the country have three set recess periods during the day: a 15-minute run-around in the morning, a 60-minute recess after lunch, and another 15-minute break in the afternoon” and “Aside from two hour long periods of gym during the week, kids often walk during school outings and field trips (which can include anything from an hour to the local library, a visit to local farms, to the lakeside for paddleboard lessons, or a hike up a local mountain). Walking is emphasized in even younger ages — indeed 3- and 4-year-olds in preschool will walk up to 2 kilometers in an afternoon to go visit the local library. Sometimes they walk to the local retirement home to sing songs for the elderly.”

Is it any surprise the obesity rates for French children are among the lowest in the world and have not been increasing?

Why doesn’t America put as much effort in to meeting the health needs of our school-aged children? France spends a smaller % of their national budget on education that the US does. Granted, they have lower PISA (Program for International Student Assessment) scores than the USA, but America only ranks 14th internationally; behind countries like Canada, Sweden, Belgium, Iceland, Japan, Norway, and Australia. American kids also spend more time in school than a lot of the countries who outrank us in testing.  So we focus on testing above the health and well-being of our students, but we are still trailing behind in testing?

Yikes.

People often argue, incorrectly, that the problem in America is the number of non-English speaking immigrant children “flooding” our school systems. That’s malarkey. Canada gets twice as many immigrants per capita as the US and their test scores leave ours in the dust. In fact, several of the countries beating our PISA scores (like Sweden and Australia) get more immigration per capita AND spend less time in school and more time at play.

Frankly, I think American schools need to be more concerned about the children, as opposed to the children’s test scores.