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So . . . you are writing a letter -- and naturally you don't want it to be read by the general public. But envelopes haven't been invented yet. What to do?
Mary Queen of Scots had that problem on February 8, 1587. She was writing a letter to her brother-in-law, Henri III, King of France. It was her last letter, as six hours later, she was executed.
Many other persons, such as Galileo and Marie Antoinette, along with those less renowned, had the same problem. The solution? Letterlocking.
The term was coined by Jana Dambrogio, the Thomas F. Peterson conservator at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Libraries. It refers to the many different ways that letter-writers folded and wrapped and sealed their missives to deter prying eyes.
A recent article in Atlas Obscura traces Ms. Dambrogio's career, from the Vatican Secret Archives, where, fresh out of grad school, she started noticing slits and fold marks and wax seals on the old letters. She gradually realized that she had founded a new area of research.
She has spent almost two decades figuring out the locks worked. It hasn't been easy. Most of the methods damage the letter when it is opened, bearing witness to spying – but also obscuring some of the techniques.
In 2012, a treasure trove of old letters, including 600 that have not been opened, was found in the Netherlands. In those days, the recipient paid the postage; so the postmaster held onto the letters, hoping that some might be claimed and the postage paid. This horde is being analyzed by Ms. Dambrogio and a collaborator, Daniel Starza Smith. It could take years.
In the meantime, they create replicas that they hand out at their workshops, teaching history and conservation to young and old.
As you can see by the photo, I've been trying out some of the techniques from instructional videos. It's fun!
In 2015, the tiny Pacific island nation of Palau – smaller than New York City -- set aside 193,000 square miles of ocean for a marine reserve, allowing no fishing or mining in the area. While Palau is smaller than New York City, the protected area is larger than California.
In 2016, the UK created a similar reserve around Pitcairn Island, of Mutiny on the Bounty fame. The island, home to only 50 people, now has a protected area of 320,465 square miles, larger than Turkey.
The newest reserve – confirmed in a referendum in September 2017 -- is around Rapa Nui (Easter Island) owned by Chile. This area is 286,000 square miles, larger than France.
Between 2015 and 2017, more ocean – all in the Pacific -- was protected by newly created marine reserves than ever before.
Why should we care?
According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), oceans are of tremendous importance:
Oceans store more than 90% of the carbon dioxide on the planet.
They remove 30% of newly created carbon dioxide.
They provide critical food supplies to many people.
Barrier ecosystems (such as coral reefs or mangrove forests) help protect the land from natural disasters.
But the pressure on oceans is also tremendous:
More than 60% of people live on or near a coast.
Some 80% of tourism is in coastal areas.
Close to 25% of fishing in developing countries occurs near coral reefs.
This is not even counting the garbage and pollution that we humans pour into it every day.
How do marine reserves help?
They protect key ecosystems, such as coral reefs, which are nurseries for young fish and other species – and they attract tourism, providing jobs and income for local people.
More than 70% of the world's fisheries are in trouble. No-fishing areas allow small fish to grow and reproduce, ultimately improving fishing for everyone.
They protect biodiversity and allow threatened species to reproduce in safety. They are critically important for conservation and sustainable development.
Unfortunately, at this point only about 1% of the ocean is protected – but these new marine reserves are steps in the right direction.
The Oxford English Dictionary (OED), the most comprehensive work of its kind, is celebrating its 90th birthday in 2018. The originators expected the work to take 10 years. Hah! In five years they were as far as "ant." It finally took 70 years. And the minute it was published, they started on an update!
We are so used to "looking it up" that it is hard to realize the first real dictionary as we know it wasn't published until 1755, by Samuel Johnson. It remained the standard for a century – but it was not comprehensive.
In 1858, the London Philological Society decided to create a better dictionary. The project stumbled along until 1878 when Prof. James Murray was appointed as editor. It became his life's work, but sadly, he didn't live to see its publication, dying in 1915.
The genius of this dictionary is in its comprehensiveness. Each word has its origin, first written use, definition(s), and quotations that illustrate each and every nuance of the word.
Murray sent out flyers for people to read literature from the 16th century onward and start "catching" words – writing in a specific format on half-size sheets of paper. Thousands of slips started pouring in.
One unusual contributor was Dr. William Minor. The story is recounted in The Professor and the Madman by Simon Winchester. Minor was a well-educated American who served in the Civil War. Some speculated that what he saw and did there drove him mad; but late in his life he was diagnosed with what we now call schizophrenia.
After the war, he went to London, and suffering from paranoid delusions, shot and killed a man. He was found not guilty by reason of insanity and sentenced to Broadmoor, a new asylum for the mentally ill.
As he was polite, intelligent, non-violent, and had a pension from the U.S. Army, he was treated quite well. He had two cells, a fireplace, extensive shelves filled by books he ordered from London, his flute, his painting supplies – almost all the comforts of home.
He found one of Murray's flyers, and he responded. With nothing but time on his hands, he organized a particularly efficient system, and sent thousands of slips. After finding out why Minor didn't accept his invitations to visit, Murray visited him frequently at Broadmoor to discuss what words or information were needed. They collaborated for some twenty years.
Now the OED is computerized – it's amazing that a 20-volume work weighing 150 pounds can be reduced to a computer disc. It is in the process of another total revision – but I'm sure it won't take another 70 years! If you want to subscribe, there is a limited-time special rate of $90 for a year.
The statistics are horrifying:
- A garbage truckload of plastic dumped into our oceans every minute – 9 million tons a year.
- A trillion plastic bags used worldwide each year, each with an average "working life" of 15 minutes.
- Massive plastic "islands" in the oceans, at least one the size of Texas.
- Birds and marine animals trapped by plastic nets and bags, or starved by eating plastic rather than real food.
More plastic than fish in the ocean by 2050 (by weight) if we keep on as we are.
Plastic breaks down into tiny pieces in the ocean, but it never goes away.
Much of the plastic that enters the oceans come from developing countries, especially in Asia, that literally have no garbage pickup, landfills, or recycling. The June 2018 issue of National Geographic has an extensive article with heart-breaking photos. There is also a fact sheet from Earth Day Network here.
But I promised you some good news last month, right? And there is!
- Many people, countries, big corporations, and not-for-profits are getting involved – Coke Pepsi, Unilever, and others are committed to reusable or recyclable or compostable packing materials by 2025.
- The trade journal Plastics Technology (July 2018), reports on a consortium of companies and not-for-profits intercepting plastic in high-risk areas before it gets to the water. The company Envision has overcome technical problems to produce an attractive silvery container from 100% beach plastic.
- Norway is recycling 97% of plastic bottles by charging high deposits.
- Many countries, states and cities are banning or taxing the one-use plastic bag.
What can individuals do? Lots!
- Use cloth bags at the grocery store. I keep cloth bags in my car. (Use an old plastic bag to wrap meat so it doesn't leak.) If it gets dirty, just wash the bag in the sink and let dry. (Do NOT try to iron them – they melt. I can't even remember why on earth I tried to iron one anyway.)
- Buy a refillable water bottle. I have a pretty blue metal one. Or buy one plastic bottle and keep refilling it. Individual plastic water bottles are a horrendous waste of the earth's resources, in addition to the problem of disposal.
- Use paper plates and cups instead of plastic ones when you have too many guests for the china. I use sturdy plastic knives, forks and spoons at parties, but I wash them and reuse them.
- Skip the straws! Restaurants are starting to provide straws only on request. In the US alone, we use 500 million plastic straws per DAY. How about a personal metal straw for the person who has everything?
- Recycle! Yes, I know it's a pain in the neck to wash out containers and store them. But when I see the big bags of plastic that I accumulate in a very short time, I am stunned – and I'm just one person. How pathetic that we recycle less than 10% of plastic in the US.
- Support local and global initiatives. Look for recycled plastic containers when you buy products. Donate to not-for-profits that are working on the problem. Let's leave the world a little cleaner than we found it!
Well, I should really say the "missing comma" that cost a Maine Dairy $5,000,000 in back overtime pay to its drivers.
At issue was the wording in a state law that was supposed to specify what activities entitled an employee to overtime pay. The law exempted employers from paying overtime to workers who did the following:
"The canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of: (1) Agricultural produce; (2) Meat and fish products; and (3) Perishable foods."
The problem arises in the phrase ". . . packing for shipment or distribution of . . . " It is ambiguous: either "packing for shipment or distribution" is exempt, or both "packing for shipment" and "distribution" are exempt. The drivers did distribute the perishable food, but they did not pack it.
The drivers lost in federal court. The appeals court reversed, saying there should have been a comma between "shipment" and "distribution." With the comma, both activities – packing for shipment AND distribution – would have been covered by the exemption. Without the comma, the drivers did not fall within the exemption.
The Circuit Court sent the case back to the lower court, and in February 2018 it was settled, with the dairy agreeing to pay $5,000,000 to about 127 drivers.
This dispute demonstrates the usefulness of the serial comma (also called the "Oxford comma," as it has traditionally been used by the Oxford University Press). This refers to the last comma in a list, and it is often omitted. Many style manuals discourage its use, but I can't imagine why. Does it take too long to type? Does it take up too much space? In my opinion, clarity is far more important than "style."
It's true that in many cases, it can safely be omitted. "The flag is red, white and blue." No ambiguity there.
But how about this? "George found himself in the awkward position of being at a party with his ex-wife, a police officer and a drug addict." How many people is George confronting? One? Is his ex-wife a police officer and a drug addict? Or are there three -- the ex-wife, the officer, and the addict? The serial comma makes all the difference.
Don't let anybody tell you that punctuation isn't important!
I believe part of the reason I love reading so much is because my parents read to me (and my brother) long after we were able to read for ourselves. Mom read prose and Dad read poetry
One of my favorites was Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936). He was born in India of English parents, and lived in England, India and the US over the course of his life. He was a very prolific writer, turning out stories, novels, poetry, innovative children's books, and more. He was the first English-language writer to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, in 1907
His reputation has waxed and waned over the years. George Orwell hated him as an apologist for empire, but Henry James and T. S. Eliot loved him. He is still known for his innovative writing, his use of language, and his powers of observation.
He is probably best known for the Jungle Books and the Just-So Stories. The Just-So stories are wonderful – how the elephant got his trunk, how the rhino got his skin, and more -- and "How the First Letter was Written."
The story features the Neolithic family of Tegumai Bopsulai (dad), Teshumai Tweindrow (mom) and Taffimai Metallumai (small daughter called "Taffy").
Tegumai breaks his spear while fishing and Taffy gets the idea to ask another tribe member to bring him another spear. Tegumai won't let Taffy go back to the cave by herself. So Taffy draws the scene on a piece of bark with a shark's tooth and gives to a stranger happening by; of course the stranger doesn't speak their language, and finds the cave completely by accident.
The scene Taffy draws, which Kipling illustrates, looks like someone is killing Tegumai with a spear in his back while hordes of warlike strangers (actually beavers) approach.
Predictably, the "letter" is not understood, and the poor stranger is roundly thumped and his hair filled with mud until the whole tribe goes out and discovers what really happened. The perils of poor communication!
In another story, Taffy and Tegumai invent the alphabet.
The stories are funny, charming, inventive, and well worth reading; I highly recommend them. There is one unacceptable word in one of the stories, but a parent can easily substitute when reading to children.
No, it's not a leaky faucet. It's the most water-savvy way to provide water to the plants in your garden. It's drip irrigation.
According to Wikipedia, primitive drip irrigation was used in China in the first century BCE. Unglazed clay pots were filled with water and buried, and the water seeped out into the ground.
Modern drip methods were pioneered in Germany in 1860, but still used clay pipes. With the advent of plastics, the technology came into its own. A plastic emitter was developed and patented in Israel, where the first experimental system was tried out in 1959.
Wikipedia says, "Modern drip irrigation has arguably become the world's most valued innovation in agriculture since the invention in the 1930s of the impact sprinkler which offered the first practical alternative to surface irrigation."
The beauty of the system is that the water gets right to the roots of the plants where it does the most good. No water is wasted through evaporation. Since the water doesn't touch the leaves, certain diseases can be avoided.
Where I used to live, we had drip irrigation for the vegetable garden. The setup consisted of a header hose, which was perforated for the drip lines to run down each row of plants. The system was made by Irrigro. The drip lines were Tyvek, and the water just seeped through the material. (Other systems have emitters plugged into the drip lines.)
We covered the lines with straw mulch, both to save water and to protect the Tyvek from the sun. The header hose was then attached to an outside faucet. Some systems have timers, but we just watched it ourselves, adjusting the faucet according to the weather. At the end of the season, we picked up the whole system and stored it in the cellar.
It worked incredibly well and was easy to put together. There are many articles and videos online with information on installation and use, such as this one from This Old House. It's not even expensive; Irrigro has a starter kit (for a 250-square-foot garden) for $50.
Try it! You'll have healthier plants, better harvests, and be part of the solution to our planet's dwindling freshwater supplies.
The Spring 2018 issue of Nature Conservancy magazine reports on promising ways to use water much more wisely than we have in the past. In 2014, they started a pilot program in Nebraska, which has the most acres of irrigated cropland in the U.S. The ongoing program now includes some 8000 acres of land.
Each field was mapped with sensors to determine productivity in each area. These maps form the basis for a system of micro-management of irrigation. Soil sensors tell farmers where water is needed, and smart phones can control the irrigation systems. As fertilizer is often delivered by the irrigation system, this system reduces fertilizer usage as well.
The bottom line is that less water is used for the same or better yields. One farmer quoted in the article said that he used 20% less water and actually had an 8 % increase in his crops.
The September 2017 issue of National Geographic had an extraordinary article on how tiny Holland is a huge exporter of food to the world – second ONLY to the U.S., which is some 270 times the size.
It is an extraordinary system, combining high-tech management with nature's own systems for pollination, pest control and fertilization. They use huge greenhouse complexes and control every aspect of the growing environment.
The result is that many farmers have reduced their dependence on water by as much as 90 percent. And the yields are staggering: one potato farmer mentioned in the article gets over 20 tons of potatoes per acre – the global average is about 9 tons.
With all the bad news about water usage and abusage, it is heartening to read about serious, successful, efforts to protect the most precious substance on the planet.
I had an amusing experience when I was in college. I was at a party. It was smoky, loud, and I knew hardly anyone. I was just thinking of leaving when I saw a guy I knew slightly. We waved and smiled. Then he looked around and grimaced. I shrugged. He raised his eyebrows and tilted his head toward the door. I nodded, and we left.
I have always been so at home with words that it amused me to think of having a conversation without them. But body language is an important part of our communication, and can be even more honest than our words.
Of course, animals have their own languages -- with and without sound -- and wouldn't I love to be able to translate! Now it is becoming clear that even plants communicate.
The March 2018 issue of Smithsonian magazine has a fascinating article about tree communication. Some of the latest studies at well-respected universities show that trees are connected to each other through underground fungus ("mycorrhizal") networks. They share water and nutrients and send signals to warn other trees of insect attacks, drought and disease. The receiving trees change their behavior to protect themselves as much as possible.
The network communications include hormones, chemical and electrical signals. Trees also communicate through the air with pheromones and scents.
"Mother" trees, with their deep roots, draw up water and share with younger trees that have shallower roots. They send nutrients to neighboring trees, especially when they detect distress signals.
The magazine extensively quotes a German forester, Peter Wohlleben, who is a kind of "tree whisperer." I ordered his book, The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate – Discoveries from a Secret World, from Amazon, and it just arrived. I can't wait to read it.
Of course not all scientists agree with what they see as anthropomorphism. Some say it goes too far to ascribe consciousness to trees, and say that everything can be explained in terms of natural selection. Perhaps. But we humans have always been very reluctant to admit that other inhabitants of the planet deserve the respect that we insist on for ourselves.
I've always loved trees and I'd rather err on the side of respect and protection.
When I was a child, we had a game called "Whisper Down the Lane." In other parts of the country it was called "Telephone," but the game was the same. You got a bunch of kids in a row and something was whispered into the ear of the first kid.
The first kid whispered to the second kid what he or she thought was said. . . and so on, down the lane. At the end of the line, after six or seven kids had passed the message along, the final sentence was compared to the original. Well! You can imagine the funny results.
(This happens in real life, too, and isn't always so funny. Think about gossip – a few "whispers down the lane" can turn a father taking his daughter to lunch into a predator hitting on young girls.)
We mostly think about verbal communication, but it can be a touch, a kiss, a scowl, a raised fist. The other animals communicate, too, verbally and physically. Even trees (and perhaps other plants) communicate to other trees to warn them of oncoming pests so they can marshal their defenses.
And how crucial it is to communicate accurately. ("The prisoner will not be executed. . . the prisoner will now be executed." OOPS. One typo can make a VERY big difference.)
We're social animals – we're stuck with having to communicate to interact with other people. Even politics, frequently disgusting, are the alternative to war.
Wouldn't it be great if when we spoke we were all direct and honest and free from hidden agendas -- if we all listened actively, paid attention, and really HEARD the other person -- if we communicated kindly, to help rather than hurt, to lift up rather than put down?
Snakes. . . spiders. . . cactus. . . warthogs. . . bugs. . . blobfish. . . I've always had a soft spot for the less cuddly and least beloved species. For the underdog, so to speak. (Among my stuffed animal collection is a foot-long cockroach.)
I've always loved dolls, too, and have my share of beautiful and cuddly ones. And when I found some old wool sweaters that were a bit moth-eaten and felted, I found myself thinking about soft dolls. I had no intention of making anything but soft, fun, cuddly dolls.
But something happened as I was working on them. They took on a life of their own, asking for crazy hair and mismatched eyes, wild color combinations, huge smiles. . .What could I do?
It got worse. Some of them begged for single eyes. I told them about the problems faced by the Cyclops family when confronted with humans such as Odysseus, but they didn't care. They liked the "minimalist" look.
They even started telling me what names they wanted. Seriously, I was making a boy doll a few months ago, and suddenly the name "Marvin" came into my mind. I wasn't thinking about names, and I'm not so fond of that one, but his little button eyes stared pleadingly into mine, and I said, "OK, OK, you're Marvin!" (I think he was smiling, but he had pulled the neck of his sweater over his lower face, so I couldn't tell for sure.)
I realized, though, that they all have good hearts and sweet temperaments. Even monster dolls – and bugs and spiders, etc. – deserve love. As we all know, it's the inner beauty that really counts.
You can live for three weeks without food, but only three days without water.
Of all the water on earth, 97% is saltwater. The other 3% is freshwater. Wikipedia tells us that of that freshwater, 1.5 to 1.75% is frozen, about 0.5 to 0.75% is groundwater; and less than 0.01% is surface water in lakes, rivers, and wetlands. Some is moisture in the soil and some is in the atmosphere. (Some is in us!)
Water is a closed system. The water we have now is the same water the dinosaurs slopped around in. And it's all the water we will EVER have on the planet. It keeps recycling – it evaporates, condenses, falls as rain or snow, and replenishes lakes, rivers and oceans. Some trickles through the ground into underground aquifers.
Groundwater aquifers are a major source of drinking water, agricultural irrigation, and manufacturing use; but humans are draining and polluting them far faster than they can regenerate. There is a fact sheet on aquifers on the website of the Safe Drinking Water Foundation.
We'd never throw gold into the garbage. Yet we pollute and waste water, which has no substitute. The government and the media have done a lousy job of informing the public what a dangerous situation we are in. A wildfire is seen as an emergency, and it is . . . but so is the state of our water. It's not dramatic enough to rate headlines, but WATER IS LIFE, period.
This is why I started my series on water. A small effort, to be sure, but you know what they say about pictures being worth lots of words.