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Sunday, February 26, 2012

Australian Expo

I took a sabbatical leave at the University of Queensland in Brisbane in 1988. That just happened to be the year of Australia's bicentennial when Brisbane was hosting the World Expo. That meant it proved to be educational for me not just academically but sociologically as well. The celebrations occasioned a time when the Aussies went back to their beginnings and took a look at what characterized them as a people. This meant openly facing their origins as a British penal colony in poetry and song.
What I didn't realize at the time was that as early as 1610, the British, like other colonial empires, had been sending their prison inmates, criminals as well as the destitute, to their colonies in the Americas, often in the guise of indentured servitude. Since its discovery, there have been many emigrants to America and because their early thriving settlements always required hired help, the indentured prison inmates were easily assimilated into the population and rarely mentioned in historical accounts. This forced emigration continued for over 170 years until the Americans won the Revolutionary War against Britain in 1783 and ended the practice.

With America now closed to them, the overcrowding of British prisons again became an issue, and they soon turned to Australia to alleviate the problem. That huge continent had been claimed for Britain in 1770 when the famous Captain Cook had discovered it. The aboriginals who had survived there for over 40,000 years before the white man, offered little resistance so a British fleet of 11 ships was assembled to carry some 759 prison inmates, male and female, along with 348 officers, crew and their wives on the 8 month journey to far off Australia. The fleet's landing in 1788 marked the first arrival of Europeans in Australia and, over the next 80 years more than 165,000 convicts were transported to the continent. Although their numbers were soon equaled and greatly overwhelmed by other settlers [by 1871 the total population was 1.7 million] unlike Americans, the Australians have never forgotten those early convict beginnings.

On our way to Australia, we had spent a couple of weeks in New Zealand and found the character and outlook of the New Zealanders very British. In comparison, we generally found most Australians we met more laid back, quick to tease and always ready for a good time. They seemed, however, especially intolerant to anyone with a ‘better-than-thou attitude’ and even then, anyone from Britain was automatically called a ‘Pommy’, a derogatory nickname from days long past.

My musings about our stay in Australia have caused me to realize the possible effects of British penal exports on early American beginnings and even on the British themselves and I hope my new found knowledge has been worth sharing. Rie

Sunday, February 19, 2012

On Writing

I started this blog, because I recognized that I needed some sort of nudging along to give me the incentive to write down some of the things that interest me and some insights I’ve had during my long life. I have long thought that every individual should leave behind some tangible record of their life and thoughts. I hoped that by blogging I would, in an impersonal way, do just that and It has worked for me. My regular weekly blog has become a habit and, in the process, I’ve learned a few things about what it takes for me to write.

First of all the act of writing, the physical business of typing in the words that convey what I want to say, usually forces me to clarify my thinking – and sometimes, even at my age, to discover what it is I really do think.
When I was going through my formative years – I was often surprised at opinions I would express in the heat of an argument. It was as if I didn’t really know what I thought about a topic until I tried to put it into words. I expect I am not alone in having had that kind of experience. Authorities agree that the brain has not even fully developed until a person has reached the age of 25 and that it keeps maturing all during our life so, with better perspectives, our viewpoints change.

I won’t go so far as to profess that if we did not have language we could not think but I do know that putting what we are thinking or what’s bothering us into words can be remarkably helpful. Research on the subject of journaling confirms this and has disclosed that some of the benefits of writing can be shown to be physical. For instance several different laboratories report that blood test show the immune function is positively affected by writing about our personal circumstances and problems.

The main benefits to writing, however, are mental. Writing invariably clears the mind of unresolved confusions and emotions that we sometimes carry around. As we write, we do this mainly using our left brain that is the analytical problem solver but sometimes our right brain, that is more intuitive and innovative, is needed to come up with insights to help unravel emotional tangles. One of the techniques now suggested to help unblock the right brain’s abilities is to write quickly while journaling and to record stream of conscious thoughts.

The movie 'Freedom Writers' with Hilary Swank is a case in point because it depicts clearly the transformative effects of journaling on disadvantaged adolescents. One thing is for sure, whether we journal or blog or even write down our thoughts in letters, it is virtually impossible to write without discovering more about ourselves. Rie

Sunday, February 12, 2012


When we visited Portugal in 1980, we toured the Algarve's south coast and one day at noon when we were looking for a place to eat, we spied a shabby little hut on the beach with tables and a grassy lane leading down to it. Sure enough it was restaurant with a chalkboard menu in Portuguese and another couple as customers. They were tackling a huge spiny langouste with apparent gusto so when the proprietor came for our order, we just pointed to them indicating we’d have the same.

It was the first time I had ever been up close to, much less tried to eat the intimidating spiny creature that came on a big platter, and it was a bit of a feat figuring out how to tackle it. It was soon obvious however, that it was like the clawed lobster we were used to in that the tail contained most of the meat so we consumed it first. It was a bit tough and not quite as flavorful as expected, but the real adventure was yet to come.

Having grown up on the east coast of Canada, we were experts at finding the tender, delicious bits of meat to be found in a lobster’s body at the base of its legs and, sure enough, exploring the body of the spiny beast was amply rewarding! There were lots of large tasty morsels of meat to be found and especially at the bottom of the huge antennae too. I was tempted, but didn’t eat the tomalley, the loose green delicious paste in the body that was the creature’s liver because, like any liver, it stores all the body toxins.

As we were engrossed in exploring our feast, we were curious to notice that the man at the other table had left his companion and driven off leaving her behind. The reason became clear when we were presented with the bill and found out our lunch had cost us almost $100US [worth almost 3 times that much now] – an unexpectedly large amount of money for lunch in such a setting! - and I too had to stay behind as my husband drove off to the nearest bank.

In recalling this memory, I realized that I still know very little about spiny lobsters so have looked them up to find that there are two main types of lobster in the world that we commonly

eat, clawed lobsters and Spiny lobsters and that they are biologically only distant cousins. Clawed lobsters thrive in cold, shallow waters as far north as Newfoundland and northern Europe and as far south as southern parts of Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. They differ from one another mainly in the size of their claws with the north American coast lobster [shown on the right] prized for its delicious large claws. Interesting that Spiny lobsters are typically found in warm waters and the big one from the Mediterranean that we had eaten was an especially rare treat there.

Looking back now, it still was worth it! Rie

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Count Rumford

A mind once opened to a new idea never goes back to its original dimensionR.W.Emerson

In 1980, when I decided to spend a Sabbatical year at the Royal Institution in London, it was because of the science being done there. I didn’t realize then that it was the oldest independent research body in the world with a fascinating history! For instance, the story of its founder Benjamin Thompson [later Count Rumford], is worth recounting.

Benjamin started out as a simple farm boy in rural Massachusetts who happened to have had a good teacher who recognized Ben’s talents and arranged for him to attend lectures at Harvard with an older student. Thus when Ben was only about 12, the two used to walk to Cambridge together to attend the lectures of John Winthrop, a science and mathematics professor. That contact introduced Benjamin to the excitement and methods of science and set him on his path of life-long experimental investigations.

Thompson was not only bright but an opportunist and, with his good looks, he did extremely well as a young apprentice to a merchant in Salem. Through this work, he came into contact with and imitated the manners of refined and educated people he had dealings with so that in 1772 when he was just 19, he charmed and married a rich older widow in Concord. Those were the years leading up to the American Revolutionary War and, because of his loyalist sympathies he was forced to flee to Boston where he became a spy for the British.

When Boston fell to the rebels, Thompson sailed to England where he rose in the government and had the opportunity to conduct scientific experiments particularly on the force of gunpowder. This work was published by the prestigious Royal Society and led to his being widely recognized as a scientist.

With the War over and a pension, Thompson traveled on the Continent eventually settling in Bavaria where he was invited to be an advisor to Prince Theodor. Observing many vagrants and idle soldiers in the streets, he set up soup kitchens and adult schools to teach mechanics and other useful trades. As well he devised make work projects, encouraged the growing of potatoes and in general improved the lot of the destitute making him a trailblazer in social reform. He was also a prolific inventor creating many practical applications like kitchen ranges, percolator coffee pots, and lighting devices that helped the poor and homeless. For his work he was granted the title Count Rumford.

At one time he investigated fireplaces by installing glass doors and, through careful observation of smoke patterns, he was able to come up with a device that made fireplaces and stoves draw well. The diagram on the right shows the smoke shelf he designed that turned the downdraft around so that it drew the smoke from the fire up through a narrow opening. As well, the damper in the throat could be adjusted to make the fire burn more efficiently. He also redesigned the firebox with sloping sides so its heated surfaces radiated warmth into the room.

After 11 years in Bavaria Rumford returned to England, made a fortune installing smoke shelves in British chimneys and, with his own money, founded [and supported] the Royal Institution. Its aim was to introduce new technologies [which is now translated as basic research] and to teach science to the general public, which it does to this day.

Though his name may be often recalled in connection with the Rumford fireplace design, he will always be renowned for his important scientific breakthrough that centered on the nature of heat as molecular motion.

Pretty interesting life for a poor farm boy whose mind was opened to new ideas by an early encounter. Rie