Teaching Tuesdays: Finland in passing

Aurora borealis in Finland. (Creative Commons)
Aurora borealis in Finland. (Creative Commons)
Aurora borealis in Finland. (Creative Commons)

I don’t celebrate St. Patrick’s Day. I’m not Irish, and dislike parades, corned beef and green beer. Instead, in honor of MY heritage I shared stuff all day on Facebook about Finland because I’m 1/4 Finnish, so here’s a recap.

I plan to visit one day. Whenever I make it to the capital city, Helsinki, I have to see the Design Museum. Helsinki has a design week and a design district, consisting of 25 streets peppered with art and antique shops, boutiques, museums and exhibitions.

In addition to objects, Finns also are way appreciative of design in places. Helsinki was named World Design Capital 2012 by the International Council of Societies of Industrial Design. The project got HUGE and continues in Design Driven City, a two-year project to promote the use of design in cities of the larger Helsinki area. The construction of Helsinki itself was designed almost solely by renowned architect Carl Ludvig Engel.

The Muuratsalo Experimental House includes experiments in “building without foundations” and “free-form column structure.” In addition, the Alvar Aalto Museum building in Jyväskylä houses a specialist museum of architecture and design, plus an international center for information on Aalto. Jyväskylä would be another stop for me, because that was my great-grandmother’s hometown.

Finns are tech-savvy and smart, inventing Linux and Internet Relay Chat. It surely doesn’t hurt that in 1963, the Finnish Parliament decided on public education as its best shot at economic recovery. The graduate program in education is fully subsidized and harder to get into than medicine or law. There’s a nifty overview called 26 Amazing Facts About Finland’s Unorthodox Education System, or for a much more detailed explanation see this Smithsonian magazine piece on why Finland’s schools are so successful.

Musically, Finland is home to Apocalyptica and Lordi … and “Finlandia.” Whether you know it or not, you’ve heard this song. The melody (at 6:09) also is used for at least six Christian hymns (and “Die Hard 2”). Jean Sibelius’ music is one of the keys to Finland’s national identity. Words were added about 40 years later and while it’s not the national anthem, some citizens have petitioned for it to be.

Finland has some unusual things, such as a heavy metal children’s music band and an Angry Birds theme park. Some embrace the “Finnwacky” tag and others disdain it.

After a successful Facebook campaign to get Anthony Bourdain to Finland, they performed bloodletting in a sauna on him. Among the other wackadoo activities there are a karaoke minivan taxi service ice swimming and Nordic walking with ski poles. Finland hosts “world championships” for both air guitar and cell phone throwing, as well as eukonkanto, or wife carrying. That one has spread to North America, retaining the traditional prize of her weight in beer.

See? Way cooler than leprechauns.

Teaching Tuesdays: Ukraine in passing

From an odd little offering called They Draw & Cook, recipes illustrated by artists from around the world, here is “Herring in a Fur Coat” by Natasha Konechnaya of Lugansk, Ukraine.
From an odd little offering called They Draw & Cook, recipes illustrated by artists from around the world, here is “Herring in a Fur Coat” by Natasha Konechnaya of Lugansk, Ukraine.
From an odd little offering called They Draw & Cook, recipes illustrated by artists from around the world, here is “Herring in a Fur Coat” by Natasha Konechnaya of Lugansk, Ukraine (source here).

I don’t pretend to have the resources to keep you up on current events in Ukraine, so I’ll leave you to pick your favorite news source, although I humbly suggest Kyiv Post as an option. For how events escalated to this point, though, you might consider these articles:

So, what do we know about Ukraine, other than it used to be part of the USSR and they make really cool eggs?

Well for one, they might host the Olympics. They’ve bid to have the 2022 Winter Games in Lviv (pronounced la-VUE). (The other candidates are Almaty, Kazakhstan; Beijing, China; Krakow, Poland; Oslo, Norway; and Stockholm, Sweden.)

Lviv is pretty cool. In a Feb. 23 story, Welcome to Lviv, the ‘free’ Ukrainian city protesters are dying for, The Globe and Mail offers details:

Long a bastion of Ukrainian nationalism, Lviv this week declared itself autonomous from the government in Kiev after security forces in the capital used deadly force against anti-government demonstrators, many of whom hail from this part of Ukraine.

As the violence in Kiev escalated, rioters here smashed their way into the city’s police stations and the prosecutor’s office, as well as part of an army base in the city. As security forces evaporated, unknown protesters lit the buildings ablaze in a show of anger against anything associated with the regime of Viktor Yanukovych.

It goes on to say that citizen “self-defence units” set up outside key government offices, insisting they would take their orders only from the mayor’s office. Why so hostile to the notion of aligning with Russia?

Lviv, a city of 725,000, is in the far west of Ukraine. It was part of the Austro-Hungarian empire at one time, Poland (less than 44 miles away) after that; it didn’t come under Moscow’s control until 1939. In European history terms, 75 years is pretty much nothing.

In pop culture, Ukrainians include Mila Kunis and Milla Jovovich, as well as comedian Yakov Smirnoff. (Although speaking of movies, the country’s illegal coal mining industry was profiled in the grand and graphic 2005 documentary Workingman’s Death.) More lasting cultural contributions (I hope) have come from Method acting pioneer Lee Strasberg, and composers Tchaikovsky and Prokofiev.

And what is Ukrainian food? It would be easy to point to Chicken Kiev, but, um …

“Though it’s named for Ukraine’s capital city, chicken kiev is probably not a Ukrainian dish,” say the good folks of Saveur. “Some say it was conceived by the French inventor Nicolas Appert in the 18th century; others claim it was created at private club in Moscow in 1912. Either way, we love it for its crisp exterior and its luscious core of dill-flavored butter.”

In fairness, they do offer Ukraine-Style Beet Soup and Fermented Beets With Orange and Ginger, inspired by rosl, a Jewish specialty from the Ukraine that calls for pickling beets in brine.

And because produce is so integral to a region, I am compelled to include the same magazine’s Fruits of Desire in this list.

“One year I grew a small, smooth-skinned, golden melon from the Crimea, in southern Ukraine,” said a man who sold melons at a farmers’ market in Davis, Calif.

He goes on say how a man from Ukraine bought a few, then came back the following week and bought him out, doing so all season. “Everyone is crazy to know where I get these, but I won’t tell them.”

I tell you this because after all, we are what we eat. To me, knowing a country’s food is vital to knowing its people.

I’m likely to keep padding along this path, so let me know … what kinds of things do you want to know about a country with which you’re unfamiliar?

Teaching Tuesdays: Labor Day, not that many of us care much

So approaches Labor Day, one of the lesser holidays.

Oh, come on. Even if you’re a diehard shop steward, Labor Day is no Christmas.

For the three Americans who have no clue why this holiday exists …

Labor Day, the first Monday in September, is a creation of the labor movement and is dedicated to the social and economic achievements of American workers. It constitutes a yearly national tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of our country. [The History of Labor Day, U.S. Department of Labor]

Catch that? “A creation of the labor movement.” Created by a special interest group, like so many other American holidays, yet strangely unsullied by the greeting card/flowers/candy machine.

That doesn’t mean it isn’t used to hawk ANYTHING, of course. As the unofficial end of summer, it is attached to promotions for beer, hot dogs and furniture … because, well, every holiday is an excuse to mark down furniture. Which is just as well, because no rational person would pay what many furniture stores charge on non-sale days.

That “end of summer” perspective is the most popular one, according to at least one 2012 survey of 1,000 adults:

A new Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey of American Adults shows that 35% celebrate Labor Day as a holiday honoring the contribution of workers in society. Fifty-two percent celebrate the federal holiday as the unofficial end of summer. Thirteen percent are undecided. [Rasmussen Reports]

Personal note: I think in the survey above, “undecided” roughly translates to “I don’t give a shit.”

Anyway, of all the celebrants of Labor Day, you’d think top of the list would be the U.S. Labor Party, right? Never heard of them? Some of their accomplishments:

From 1996 through 2007, hundreds of union affiliates – including six national unions – dozens of chapters and local organizing committees, and thousands of individual members joined the Labor Party. We launched national campaigns around the right to a job, just health care, free higher education, and the right of all workers to organize and bargain. [about page, Labor Party]

You might have noticed the past tense. The article Labor Party Time? Not Yet outlines reasons for the decline and a look toward the future that is both stubborn (“There is no alternative”) and realistic (“… this is not the time to dust off the Labor Party”).

And what of May Day, that Communist holiday devoted to labor? Turns out it’s actually an American invention:

Today we see tens of thousands of activists embracing the ideals of the Haymarket Martyrs and those who established May Day as an International Workers’ Day. Ironically, May Day is an official holiday in 66 countries and unofficially celebrated in many more, but rarely is it recognized in this country where it began. [The Brief Origins of May Day, Industrial Workers of the World]

Why do we turn our backs on this holiday, which had its roots in reasonable measures such as the establishment of an 8-hour work day? Just a guess, but I’m betting it’s because those roots also include socialism, and that’s the real S word in our country today, isn’t it?

Myself, I am grateful that I have not been asked to write a newspaper story about someone who has to work on Labor Day. Just watch, the vast majority of U.S. news outlets will have some such thing, delivered by people who themselves work the holiday.

Am I off the mark? If Labor Day has some particular meaning for you, please feel free to share it below.

Teaching Tuesdays: Procrastination


… yeah, I know it’s Friday. Time is an artificial construct. Over yourself yet?

My dear and timeless friend the Oxford English Dictionary defines “procrastinate” as

To postpone till another day; to put from day to day; to defer, delay

Much as this is a contemporary topic, with many time management tip websites – 43 FolderslifehackerGetting Things Done et al – the problem is nothing new. Note this from 1742:

“Procrastination is the thief of time;
Year after year it steals, till all are fled.”
– Edward Young, “The Complaint, or Night-Thoughts on Life, Death and Immortality”

To put something off, there needs to be a period to move it from and one to move it to. To quantify the guilt, humans invented time measurement.

OK, not really. Factors ranged from agrarian to astronomical:

The early inventions were made to divide the day or the night into different periods in order to regulate work or ritual, so the lengths of the time periods varied greatly from place to place and from one culture to another. [NRICH, “A Brief History of Time Measurement”]

I was one of those college students who would calculate how long a paper would take down to the hour, so I would rationalize that as long as I started by 3:30 a.m., for example, I had plenty of time. Being naturally deadline-oriented, it probably is not a shock I ended up in journalism. “When do you need this?” is still one of my critical questions, hence my fondness for this Spanish proverb …

“Tomorrow is often the busiest day of the week.” [“The Perils of Procrastination – 11 Ways to Put an End to Putting it Off”]

A few of my professors knew I had this predilection and called me on it. It’s painfully common in academia, and here’s how one post described the faculty-student divide:

To simplify (legendary Stanford social psychologist Philip) Zimbardo’s elegant theory, some individuals are primarily present-oriented. These individuals focus on immediate pleasure and gratification. They are more likely to be aggressive, less likely to wear a watch, and more likely to gamble or seek other short-term gratifications. They also study less, and have less impulse control. Other people are future oriented, and ask themselves what the cost-benefit of certain future actions will be, and they make their choices based on those calculations. Future oriented people are less aggressive, more likely to use a planner, wear a watch, and floss their teeth. They have better impulse control, and study more. [Teach Philosophy 101, “Different Time Perspectives”]

Not that these inclinations end with graduation. They linger, or drag, into the work force, into volunteer posts (you do volunteer, right?), into the way we keep our homes.

A Psychology Today article posits there are two types of procrastinators, active and passive. I swing both ways:

If you’re an active procrastinator, you choose to put things off because you like the adrenaline rush that comes with getting things done right at the wire. You enjoy the challenge and you don’t really want to change. If you identify more with the passive procrastinator, however, you already know how procrastination interferes with your life – the missed opportunities, the damaged relationships, and the constant stress, anxiety, and guilt. [“Can Procrastination Ever Be a Good Thing?”]

As with all things time-related, then, it’s a matter of perspective. On that note, I close with three quotes about time:

“When a man sits with a pretty girl for an hour, it seems like a minute. But let him sit on a hot stove for a minute and it’s longer than any hour. That’s relativity.”
– Albert Einstein, in the abstract from a paper for the Journal of Exothermic Science and Technology

“What a friend we have in time.
Gives us children, makes us wine.
Tells us what to take or leave behind.”

– John Denver, “Friends With You”

“But if you could heal a broken heart,
wouldn’t time be out to charm you?”

– Guns N’ Roses, “November Rain”

Teaching Tuesdays: Behind the scenes at a butterfly house

Every year, Dow Gardens in Midland, Michigan, hosts Butterflies in Bloom, a butterfly house that is unusual in that visitors are allowed to touch the butterflies. I am a butterfly caregiver, so here are some photos from last week, three days before opening.


This case is home to all the chrysalids while the butterflies and moths grow and prepare to emerge. How do the chrysalids get there? They are pinned. Entomologist Elly Maxwell gets boxes that she opens inside a box with sleeves, then sorts the contents. She and volunteers then carefully pin them and add them to the case.


There is much more drama than the wiggling and stretching creatures, though. One key task is inspecting the case for invaders — either from within, through parasitic wasps, or from without, through the tiny white ghost ants that pervade the conservatory. We are careful not to let any cords or leaves touch the case so ants can’t get across that way.

When the case is not open for removing invaders or ready butterflies, it must be locked. The USDA would shut the exhibit down otherwise. Visitors understand that live butterflies can’t leave, hence the two sets of doors. However, we also cannot let dead butterflies or even parts such as wings leave the building, no matter how much students or Scouts might beg. Plant material can’t leave, either, on the off chance it might have eggs on it.


One of the jobs of a butterfly caregiver is to rescue crashed butterflies. Sometimes they fall from their chrysalids onto the moisture-soaked pads below. The case is lined with these mats because the inhabitants need about 93 percent humidity to develop properly. The red stuff isn’t blood, but meconium, which drips out as the insects emerge and pump fluid into their wings.


This is a crasher. If a butterfly falls before its wings are ready, it needs to be placed somewhere it can attach itself and reorient hanging down to finish the process. I reached into the case, “tickled it under the chin” as Elly says, and waited for it to crawl onto my hand.


This is the “nursery” for recovering butterflies. That Norfolk pine is where I was trying to get my butterfly friend to go. Unfortunately, it didn’t have a good grip and fell through the tree to a potted plant blow, and this is how it looked when I left:


Here is one that developed properly but still is in the case, photographed through the glass case front:


Here’s an underside shot of another species:


Just as butterflies like it humid inside the case, they like it humid in the conservatory, which can reach 90 degrees. Hence, another critical butterfly caregiver task is watering the floor. Not kidding.


When watering or even just walking around, you have to make sure you don’t dampen or trample one of the winged residents, which sometimes hang out on the floor.


Misting fans also help keep the humidity up.


As long as visitors are careful, they are encouraged to interact with the butterflies. Remember that the wings are too fragile to touch. There are many species in this exhibit, including some from Asia and Africa, and if one lands on you, you are welcome to let it hang out there if you like.


Teaching Tuesdays: Bacon, highest form of pork

A serving of bacon cooking in my beloved Calphalon skillet.
A serving of bacon cooking in my beloved Calphalon skillet.

Bacon temptation
brings instant salivation
and satiation.

Bacon is one of those foods that to me transcends food groups. Ask me to list cravings, and bacon is at the top of the savory list, with sharp cheddar sniffing at its heels.

So today, a brief homage to bacon via some musings about its varied uses and history. Expect a sequel at some point.

Do you buy bacon bits? Stop. Just like an actual wedge of Parmesan brings so much more to pasta than that powdered stuff, it is worthwhile to make some bacon, crumble it and refrigerate it.

The problem, of course, being that enough bacon has to survive the process. This is why I have come to buy bacon in quantities of no less than 2 pounds at Jack’s, my local meat market. Their slices also are thicker than what you find in most prepackaged units.

• Of course, after you make bacon, you have bacon fat. What to do with it? Make caramels, of course, with this nommy recipe.  Essentially, you’ll be swapping in 5 tablespoons of bacon fat for the usual butter.

• Want to give candy and flowers? Why ask here? Because I found out how to make a bouquet of bacon roses. As the folks at Bacon Today say, “Because they want romance and you want a snack. Problem solved.”

• Bacon’s cousin, pancetta, is similar in that both are made from pork belly and cured. Bacon is set apart by being cold-smoked. Prosciutto is a different thing altogether but gets lumped in sometimes anyway, according to theKitchn.

• The creators of Bakon vodka say they spent two years perfecting their recipe for use in the “carnivorous cocktails” that had become popular: “These bartenders have found that the savory aspect of bacon makes a great dominant profile in a cocktail like a Bakon martini with a blue cheese-stuffed olive. But it can also take the back seat, with bacon’s smoky flavor subtly enhancing the taste in a concoction like a Chocolate Martini.”

• The phrase “bringing home the bacon” dates to the 12th century, according to Who Invented It’s bacon entry: “Legend says that a church in Dunmow, England promised to give bacon to any man who could swear to the church and God he hadn’t argued with his wife for a year.”

Not gold, frankincense or myrrh. BACON.

Teaching Tuesdays: Pondering poisons

When I heard last week that Yasser Arafat’s body was being exhumed to test whether he was poisoned, the timing was interesting. My premed son had just been home for the weekend and something he said reminded me of a mercury poisoning case I knew he would find interesting.
So today we talk about poisoning! It’s an aggregation because I have no personal knowledge on the topic, but we’ll hit some high-profile cases plus some weird science.

Politics entirely aside, here’s more on the Arafat case, including what exactly exhumation entails:

What we could learn from Yasser Arafat’s exhumation [The Conversation]
“Polonium is notoriously difficult to detect and has a relatively short half-life of 138 days, which means that after eight years (Arafat died in November 2004), the search for it in human tissue will involve some complex chemistry. But apart from the analytical problems and forensic issues of sampling, the exhumation itself will be problematic – largely because of the likely state of Arafat’s remains.”

This is the mercury case and story I remembered. So much was learned from this tragic death, including that the gloves that were meant to protect her actual were a conductor:

Scientist’s Death Helped Increase Knowledge of Mercury Poisoning [Los Angeles Times]
“It was just a drop of liquid, just a tiny glistening drop. It glided over her glove like a jewel.”

Because I used to cover The Dow Chemical Co. and by extension its byproducts, I’m interested in dioxin and was fascinated when former Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko was diagnosed with dioxin poisoning. He’s alive, but still harboring it in his blood, and the case opened a discussion about testing techniques.

Viktor Yushchenko still suffers from dioxin in his body [Pravda]
“Former Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko said that he was still experiencing discomfort because of dioxin poisoning.”

The Dioxin Poisoning Of Victor Yushchenko: Need For Methods In Routine Analysis Of Metabolites Of The Poison TCDD [Medical News Today]

“The study shows seventeen different types of dioxin were analyzed in Mr Yushchenko. Only TCDD levels were higher than those in the general population. This indicates a severe intoxication of pure TCDD.”

On a slightly different note, we have radiation poisoning, thoughtfully discovered and studied by some of our best-known scientists.

What Is Radiation Poisoning? [Wise Geek]
“Nikolai Tesla, a famous inventor and scientist, described burns he received after exposing his hands to early X-ray technology. Famed female scientist Marie Curie devoted her life to understanding radiation and its uses, and died of cancer believed to be caused by consistent exposure to radiation.”

Need some poison recipes? Here’s some slightly redacted info, but surely a sharp chemist can fill in the details. (Not an endorsement, don’t try potassium cyanide at home.)

Manual for poisons and chemical gases published on Hamas website [Free Republic]
“A manual published on the official Hamas website, titled ‘The Mujahadeen Poisons Handbook,’ has been discovered, which is a manual for preparing poisonous materials to use in a terrorist attack. … The 23-page manual, written by Abdel-Aziz in 1996, details for terrorists how to prepare various homemade poisons, chemical poisons, poisonous gases and other deadly materials for use in terrorist attacks against Israelis, Westerners, and anyone else who stands in the way of an Islamic Jihad.”

Teaching Tuesdays: Things you might not know about Syria

Our handy globe. In case you read down to the dog joke, note the yellow splotch on Syria’s coast; that’s Lebanon.

A couple of weeks ago I bumped into this jaw-dropping photo gallery of current goings-on in Syria.  I’m sorry that I don’t recall whose tweet I got it from, but chances are excellent it was either Andy Carvin (@acarvin) or Neal Mann (@fieldproducer).

As a longtime journalist, I not only like to know what’s going on in my world, but I like to make sure others know, too. In the case of the whole world, it was my (almost) secret mission when working the international wire to publish at least one story from each continent. Antarctica almost never cooperated, but it also highlighted to me how poor a job the Associated Press was doing at the time with Latin America.

Anyway, I posted the gallery on Facebook and said, “In case you forgot things are wretched in Syria.”

One of my best friends, a fairly sharp woman, replied, “not only did I not forget, I did not know…. didn’t make it through 1/4 of the pics – gotta go research… wtf”

And so was born the idea for Teaching Tuesdays, because we all like alliteration and Monday has too many other challenges to add extracurricular learning to it. Every other week, I’ll aggregate some stories about something that interests me that we might not know as much about as we should (fair warning: one week it is bound to be elephants). First up: Syria.

Al Jazeera is concerned to the point of gathering its stories into a package, Syria: The War Within. “Violence escalates and refugee crisis mounts as rebels and Assad’s forces remain locked in conflict,” it says. In the latest story, EU foreign ministers say they view the National Coalition to be the “legitimate representatives” of the Syrian people.

In case you’re wondering if today’s unrest elsewhere in the Middle East involves Syria, the answer is hell, yes. The BBC’s handy timeline of Syrian history ends with this paragraph: “Israeli military fire on Syrian artillery units after several months of occasional shelling from Syrian positions across the Golan Heights, the first such return of fire since the Yom Kippur War of 1973.”

Some other tidbits for when you have time:

Creative Syria bills itself as culture, arts, history and current affairs, and includes contemporary artists. I also found this joke in a Charles Glass column: A dog in Lebanon, an old joke goes, was so hungry, mangy and tired of civil war that he escaped to Syria. To the surprise of the other dogs, he returned a few months later. Seeing him better groomed and fatter than before, they asked whether the Syrians had been good to him. “Very good.” “Did they feed and wash you?” “Yes.” “Then why did you come back?” “I want to bark.”

Syria’s economic freedom score is 51.2, making its economy the 139th freest in the 2012 Index. (Heritage Foundation)

Why Syria turmoil threatens Middle East (CNN, Oct. 2 analysis) — As Syria continues its descent into civil war, the terrible humanitarian tragedy occurring is unfolding in plain view: 20,000 dead, 250,000 refugees outside the country by some accounts, over a million people internally displaced.