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Sunday, May 29, 2011

Celebration of Life

My brother died in December and this weekend the whole family and close friends have gathered to celebrate his life.

We are having ceremonies, large gatherings and small, all with lots of opportunity to tell stories of his accomplishments, foibles, funny incidents and sad. We are having a wonderful time laughing and crying and sharing the memories we have. We are celebrating that he will live on in those memories.

I will be back next week. Rie

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Red Coats

If you read my last blog about rubber – you’ll find a few similarities in this one in that it tells the tale of another natural product that the Spanish discovered when they conquered South and Central America, which subsequently ended up being exploited by the British.

A few years ago my husband and I spent a winter in Oaxaca, a city in southern Mexico where its indigenous peoples and cultures have survived better than in any other region of Mexico.

As you fly south from Mexico City over extensive rugged mountain ranges - you finally spot Oaxaca beautifully located below on a broad mountain plateau. The experience makes you realize why the city’s culture is so very rich - it would have been virtually impossible for the Spaniards to properly conquer the area because of its location. Its isolation was obviously the reason for the survival of the sixteen original native villages that are located in the valleys around the city.

We had friends who had wintered in Oaxaca for 14 years, spoke Spanish easily and enjoyed visiting the indigenous villagers. They had got to know some of them so well they counted them as good friends. We rented a car and took many happy outings with them visiting different villages where each one specialized in its own style of craft – be it pottery, woodcarving or hand weaving. In everything they produced they used the bright colours they loved.

One different excursion we took was to a ranch where they grew a special kind of cacti and bred bugs – to be precise –cochineal insects that fed on them. The picture at the top shows the process of infesting new cacti leaves with hatching cochineal.

They got the eggs, or hatching young insects, by brushing them from leaves used for brooding onto a piece of fabric that is pushed into a finger shaped basket and hung over a fresh cactus leaf. When the insects mature they are crushed to release the red caminic acid, which makes up a fifth of the body weight of the female insect. It is an edible red dye that changes colour depending on what you mix it with.

This dye source, known since the time of the Incas, was exported by the Spanish when they conquered South America where the cactus the cochineal feed on also grows. However, it had a checkered history and didn’t really catch on until the 18th century. By then the British had combined modern science with their long experience with dyes and found mordants that made the dye bright crimson, ‘fixed’ it to the fabric and made it colour fast.

The British subsequently took over the industry and one example of its early use by the British was to dye the woolen cloth they used in making the ‘red coats’ that served as the famous uniform for men of the British army for many wars – Prince William wore a traditional red coat at his wedding recently. Rie

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Rubber Thief

After retirement my husband and I used to spend winters traveling and in 1994 we flew to South America for four months of exploration. After an Elderhostel course in Brazil, we had a chance to fly up to Manaus, a city in the middle of the huge rainforest 1000 miles up the mighty Amazon River.

We hadn't had a chance to read ahead so knew little about what we would find as we flew over jungle for what seemed like hours. Finally, as the plane slowed, we saw below a city whose size, layout, and buildings amazed us by their grand scale.

The Amazon is still nearly a kilometer wide at Manaus and many of the floating wharfs and buildings were constructed of metal that had been shipped in from Europe. The impressive opera house pictured above, gives a sense of the city's grandeur. We soon learned it all had to do with rubber.

When the Spanish and Portuguese colonized South America they found the natives had learned to score the bark of rubber trees to collect the sap that had the consistency and colour of thick

milk. It was called latex, and when the water was evaporated from it, they learned to make the rubber balls that Columbus described them using in games.

For centuries rubber was viewed as a curiosity until in the 1820’s two British scientists, Macintosh & Hancock, experimented with coating cloth with latex to make waterproof clothing. However it was not until 1843 - when Goodyear learned to keep the rubber from getting very soft in warm weather and stiff in cold, that rubber caught on and the demands from Europe started a rubber boom.

Prospectors and speculators found that a variety of wild rubber trees around Manaus was the most productive and they soon became very very wealthy exploiting that source to supply the insatiable markets in Europe. Everyone in Brazil profited, including the Brazilian government, which carefully guarded its natural resource. Their monopoly on rubber was successful until Henry Wickham, a British biologist, was able to smuggle 70,000 seeds out of the country. They were germinated at Kew Gardens in London and the seedlings shipped to suitable British colonies like Malaysia and parts of Indonesia where plantations were started. The whole process took about 60 years but eventually the rubber trees were able to be milked and profits flowed, and perhaps are still flowing, into British pockets and so ended the Manaus boom.

Actually, we have since visited Malaysia’s rubber plantations and, at night when it is cool, we were able to observe the trained workers, with their calcium carbide lamps, maintaining the latex flow by carefully trimming the channels that ‘milk’ the trees.

Travel holds many charms but the most rewarding for me are those where my knowledge of the world is enriched and expanded. Rie

Sunday, May 8, 2011

See Jane Soar

Women make up half the world's population but in most countries they are only awakening to their potential. When that potential is 
fully released we will see a much different and better world. Rie

For the two decades before I retired, I taught mostly university students taking third and fourth year courses in physical chemistry. When I talked to the girls who did exceptionally well about going on with their studies in math or science, I found that most of them had no idea of their own abilities and were not even considering further studies because they didn’t think they were good enough to go further. It was a different story with the boys – they were confident and sometimes had an exaggerated idea of their own abilities.

As I came to retirement age, I realized it was like a recurring theme - girls too often underestimating their potential. That was just my opinion but one I held so strongly that I went to the President of the University, told him that I wanted to do a study to find out how girls stood up academically. I asked him for permission to have a printout of the records of student Grade Point Averages [GPA’s] for all courses in all faculties over the last 10 years. It sounded innocuous enough and he readily agreed, not perhaps realizing that the information would fill 28 document boxes with the raw data. I had a student do the preliminary hackwork, and as I analyzed the figures, they revealed an unexpected and absolutely astounding picture.

I had in no way set out to document the superiority of one gender over another – my goal was just to show young women that they were just as good as most of the boys. However, by the very nature of the exercise, the academic test results of men and women were of necessity compared. The data showed that in every single course - be it in Arts, Science, or Math - the girls on average consistently made better grades than boys.

The gap between their scores was in most cases narrowing by the final year and there were a few cased when the boys on average had surpassed the girls in one year. I rationalized it was because girls mature at a younger age and the boys were catching up. Apparently our brains continue to mature until we are around 25 and there is no doubt about it that men and women have different approaches to life and their work. My observation is that women in general tend to take less risk and can multitask easily whereas men in general are more single minded and less conservative in their approach.

The big overall message is that the evidence in this study and others like it, shows that women should have every confidence in their potential to pursue whatever career they aspire to whether it be in the traditional fields for women or those for which they may have been told they are not suited - like math, physics or chemistry.

Spread the word. Rie

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Silk Road

In the fall of 2000, Elderhostel, now called Road Scholars, offered a full two week educational adventure to Uzbekistan in Central Asia and we joined up. Uzbekistan is where Samarkand, Tashkent and Khiva were established trading posts on the Silk Road that merchants traveled from Europe to China. [click on map to enlarge]

At that time it was only nine years since Uzbekistan had declared its independence after 24 years of Russian occupation and, as we expected, there were few concessions for tourists – but that made it all the more interesting for us! We found the food very unfamiliar and most signs and directions were written in the Russian alphabet [русский алфавит] or Arabic script that had been used before that. The architecture, impacted mostly by Arab and Muslim culture, was unusual and different and one also felt that quite a few Uzbeks were not many generations away from their fierce equestrian tribesmen ancestors. They were civil but cautious and carried themselves with pride - as well they might.
Seeing things from their point of view, we gained a new respect to learn that is was largely in this part of the world that the concept of one God, instead of many, first originated. It started with Zoroastrianism and then was taken up in turn by Judaism, then Christian and Muslim religions. As well, after the fall of the Roman empire during the Middle Ages from the 5th to the 15th century, when there were barbarian hoards devastating European culture, the Uzbeks were among those who valued the knowledge that had been accumulated in such places as the famous Library at Alexandria. They preserved it and built institutions that fostered the search for new learning.
I had always had the misconception that the Silk Route was discovered by Marco Polo because he was the first ever to write about his extensive travels from Europe to China in the 13th century. However our lecturers informed us that the route was actually first traveled during the expansion of Alexander the Great's empire into Central Asia and China in 329 BCE. Much of Central Asia is so arid it is desert but the fertile area between two rivers in Uzbekistan, the Amu and Syr, can be considered a cradle of civilizations that goes so far back into antiquity that one can only guess at its origin. We do know that cities like Samarkand and Tashkent already had a long history when Alexander conquered the region.
A feature that constantly reminded us of the ever present danger of getting lost in the shifting sands of the desert, were the very tall round towers on which fires were kept lit all night to guide travelers. I have often wondered if the idea of using the minarets around their mosques was picked up when the Muslims invaded this part of Asia in the middle of the 7th century! Rie