By Lon Maxwell, Reference Department
Being a ninja is synonymous with stealth. This lesson is all about online stealth.
In the last year or two, internet privacy has been in the news. Sites from credit report companies to the emails of our presidential candidates have been hit with online attacks. Our local governments and schools are regularly accosted for personal information. What can we do to protect ourselves? The average person is not going to receive the same volume of scrutiny from hackers as, for example, a candidate for senate, but you still want to make sure that you are protecting yourself as much as you can. Browsing the internet in the most private manner possible is a good start. Now I’m not talking about taking your laptop into the broom closet, I’m specifically referring to the way you surf the net.
Virus protection and firewalls
This may seem like a basic bit of information, but you’d be amazed at how many people need to hear it. ALWAYS use your virus check software. NEVER turn off your firewall. Antivirus software keeps incoming cyber-attacks from disrupting your computers functioning. Without it you could be giving people access to anything from your browser history to your credit card information and even every key stroke you make. It is the active defense system for your computer. The firewall is the passive defense. Just as a real firewall keeps blazes from reaching parts of a building and burning through property, a computer firewall keeps people on the outside from getting into your info and burning through your bank account.
Your Browser’s Privacy Feature
Almost every browser out there, for mobile or desktop devices, has a privacy feature. It may be called something else, but if you look you should be able to find it fairly easily. While this is not the same as going online incognito, it does offer a certain amount of protection. Here are the basics for the most common browsers:
- Internet Explorer: Here you’re looking for the In Private Browsing feature. It’s under the tools menu in the drop downs on the menu bar, or you can access it by hitting Control + Shift + p. InPrivate Browsing keeps your computer from storing information like cookies, temporary Internet files, and history.
- Firefox: In Firefox You can access the private browsing mode by clicking the hamburger button and then choosing the private icon that resembles a carnival mask. You can also use the same hot key combination as internet explorer. The Major difference with the Firefox protection is that it keeps sites from trying to track where you’ve been.
- Chrome: From the more menu click new incognito window. Chrome refers to their privacy mode as incognito mode. It opens in a separate window so there is no mistake about whether it is on or not. Incognito mode does not save your browser history of cookies, but what you did can still be tracked by your network provider, be that your ISP, work or school.
- Safari: When you open a new private browsing window from the file menu in the pull down bar of Safari, you are getting a fairly similar private browsing experience to the Chrome user. This hides your history from the people who use your computer but not from the provider of your internet service.
TOR Browsers and VPNs
For true internet privacy you need to be using a Virtual Private network (VPN), the TOR browser, or both. VPNs are a special private network used while on a public network. It allows communication from one source to another in a secure private manner. While private browsing features keep your computer from picking up information about what you do online, the TOR browser keeps everyone else from seeing it. This gives you the freedom to be online without leaving your IP footprints everywhere you go. Even using these in tandem, however, is not foolproof. Always make sure that you give out as little personal information as possible when going online.
The Throw Away Email
One final tool is the throw away email. This is an email you can set up with a company like gmail that allows you to create an email that does not have any of your actual personal information attached to it. With an email like this you can still sign up for those contests and newsletters that may pique your interests but might be a tool for spammers to get your information. The important part is making sure that when you set up the email you are using a service that does not ask for name, address or phone number. There are even services that will set you up with a temporary email, such as guerrilla mail.
The internet can make your everyday life great deal easier, but it can also make it easier for spammers and scammers to make your life miserable as well. Protect yourself according to your needs and never give them more information that you want them to have. Remember, the first weapon of the internet ninja is stealth.
By Lon Maxwell, Reference Department
Last year they asked me to make up a list for the New Year Reading Challenge. Apparently I did a good enough job that they’ve asked me to do it again. Last year I talked about all the benefits of reading. How it can help with empathy, stress, high blood pressure, and even reduce risk of Alzheimer’s disease. These are all great and laudable reasons to read, but the main thing that I’d like to work on this year is fostering a love to read. According to a Gallup poll, between 1978 and 2014 the percentage of people in the United States that hadn’t picked up a book in a year or more close to tripled from 8% to 23% [i](and they even counted the audiobook listeners as readers). That it has tripled is bad enough, that it is nearing a full quarter of the population is startling.
The average number of books read per capita was 12 in 2015, but the voracious readers inflated that number a bit and the most common given response to a survey of readers when asked for the number of books they’d read in the last year was four[ii]. Four?… Four! How in the world am I supposed to make a book challenge list to attract the average person when they only read a book a season?
I realized that this blog is usually read by readers. We word hungry book people that push the average up to twelve books a year. This year I thought I’d make it both a little easier and a little harder. There are two less books this year, but the suggestions are more specific. If you can read two books a month, regardless of the themes below, great! But if you like to push yourself, try to keep up with the challenge and if you need help finding a book ask your local librarians for help. We’ve always got suggestions.
- It’s a new year, read something new. Pick a book that was published in the last 2 months.
- Renew your spirit for the New Year, read something that inspires you.
- It’s African American History Month. Read a book by an African American author.
- Read a book with a romantic theme or subplot, It doesn’t have to be a romance novel, just a little love will do.
- Award Season is wrapping up. Read a book that has won an award. 
- For Women’s History Month, read a book by a female author or with a female main character.
- Read a collection of poetry for national poetry month.
- Spring has arrived, read an article in a periodical about nature
- Free Comic Book Day is May 6th. Read a graphic novel, comic book or manga.
- Teacher Appreciation week is in May. Read a book that is required reading for school. 
- Get a book recommendation from a dad.
- Read a book about the outdoors, whether it’s a story, travel guide or field guide.
- July 4th celebrates independence, be free to read a book of your choice.
- Find a beach read, something fun and enjoyable, regardless of whether you are going to the beach.
- It’s hot in the south in august. Read something form a southern writer.
- Go back to school by reading a book you loved or were supposed to read in high school or college.
- Harvest time brings to mind great food, find a book about food or cooking that you might enjoy.
- Read a book that has been banned in September to celebrate Banned Books Week 9/29-10/6/18
- Read a book about something that scares you. It doesn’t have to be H.P. Lovecraft, just that you challenge your fears.
- Halloween means treats and sweets. Try a little brain candy. Read a book just for its entertainment value.
- Election season is close at hand. Read about the issues and the candidates.
- Find a book about someone, somewhere or something less fortunate to help you be thankful for what you have.
- Find a book that takes place in winter to match the weather outside.
- Add Jolabokaflod to your holiday calendar. Give books as gifts on December 24th and spend some time reading one.[iii]
-  Some links to great award sites are available here: http://www.bookspot.com/awards/
-  Here is a list of common Required reading books: https://www.goodreads.com/shelf/show/high-school-required-reading
- [i] https://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2014/01/the-decline-of-the-american-book-lover/283222/
- [ii] https://www.irisreading.com/how-many-books-does-the-average-person-read/
- [iii] Jolabokaflod is the Icelandic tradition of giving books as presents on Christmas Eve and reading as a family for the rest of the night.
By Lon Maxwell, Reference Department
Jólabókaflóð, or if you prefer your text free of diacritical marks and disused letters, Jolabokaflod, is a tradition that could only come out of Iceland. Literally it translates to Yule Book Flood. Icelanders read an average of eight books a year, while Americans end up at about four. They also publish about one title for every two hundred people and there is an average of 775 titles released every Christmas season. This onslaught of reading material is the flood but it’s only part of the tradition.
The actual beginning of this Christmas ritual doesn’t go back very far, though the Icelandic love of books goes back over a thousand years. Icelanders have always been lovers of stories and tales, especially on the long winter’s long nights. The Skalds, wandering or court poem singers, were held in some renown and acted as the author/rock stars of their day. It was not uncommon for a Skald to be taken with the plunder of war. They filled the great halls of Viking leaders with songs and tales as, sometimes, nightly entertainment from Russia to Greenland. The famous Eddas (two Medieval Icelandic literary works) also carried poetic myths down through the ages and were memorized and recited by scholar after scholar until recorded by a man named Snorri Sturluson to both preserve and enhance their accessibility. Finally the sagas journeyed from land to land taking tales of Thor and Loki (not just Marvel characters) and Beowulf and even Leif Erikson to the people of Scandinavia.
The modern half of the tradition owes its genesis to the independence of Iceland from Denmark in 1944. Because of the Second World War, many things were rationed. This made giving presents at Christmas hard, unless of course, you took advantage of the long standing love of tales and gave books for Christmas. You see, one thing that was not rationed was paper. The Icelandic people and their publishing houses loved the idea. Beginning in the Forties and running down through today, people have been waiting impatiently for their copy of the Bókatíðindi, the magazine/catalog that comes every fall. This magazine is put together by all the publishing houses in cooperation to showcase all the new titles for that year. This is the Sears and Roebuck Christmas book of Iceland. The difference is that the publishers print, package and ship these catalogs to every household in the Nation…for free. The revenue generated more than outweighs the expense. All of the media, print broadcast and online, have book reviews and publication announcements. It is the event of the year.
So what exactly makes this a Christmas tradition? Everybody gives books at Christmas. Everyone. All of Iceland has their Christmas Eve meal, exchanges gifts and then sits around as a family and reads their new books for the remainder of the day while eating konfect, filled chocolates, and sipping hot chocolate or jólabland, a sweet nonalcoholic malt beverage that is a Christmas favorite. The parties that occur after Christmas will have a lot of book discussions. Newspapers will be covering the best and worst of the books, from writing and plots to covers and titles.
We could all benefit from this, but I certainly don’t endorse replacing all your holiday gifts with books. The great thing about borrowed traditions is that you can adapt them to fit your life. I first ran across this tradition on Christmas Eve two years ago. This was a little short notice for 2015 so I decided that I would try it with my family in 2016. Last year we all drew lots in November and picked a book for the person we drew and everybody go to open their book on Christmas Eve. We then spent the remainder of the evening quietly reading. It was a great way to quiet down kiddos, hyped up on Christmas cookies and the pending visit from Santa. It also solved the “Can’t we have just one present tonight?” problem that parents have faced for years. It’s also a great way to foster a love of reading in your whole family.
We are a nation made of other nations and their traditions. We have German Christmas trees, English carols and eggnog, Spanish luminarias and Irish mistletoe. We are not afraid to adapt great traditions from our ancestors, or even our neighbor’s ancestors. Jólabókaflóð is making its way into American holiday plans. You can find everything from recipes to try and hints at adapting the book flood to fit your holidays to Icelandic chocolates and Jólabókaflóð pyjamas. So maybe this year while you’re out doing the dreaded holiday shopping, pick up some books for your family and friends and borrow a tradition from our Icelandic friends and have a nice reading time on Christmas Eve.
- Songs of the Vikings by Nancy Marie Brown
 Nancy Marie Brown and many other scholars believe that much of the inspiration for modern favorites The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings and their literary descendants come from the tales of the Vikings.
By Lon Maxwell, Reference Department
Everyone loves a good mystery. We love to hear the details and questions left. We love to put our brains to the facts and puzzle out what may have been missed. A small part of us hopes (however unlikely it may be) that we may actually be able to find that crucial overlooked bit, or make that perfect leap that could bring the mystery to an end. It’s one of the reasons the mystery genre has been so popular since Poe created it, through books, radio, film and television. Sometimes though, the mysteries are real, the people have disappeared. I’m not talking about the search for mysterious creatures like big foot or the investigations of odd phenomenon like the Bermuda triangle. I’m talking about the actual mysteries from the real world that puzzle investigators and theorists every day.
The Lost Persian Army
Some mysteries go back in time, way back in time. For instance, in 524 BCE the emperor of Persia sent an army into Egypt. The emperor, Cambyses II, was attempting to solidify his claim to the throne of Egypt. This meant destroying an oracle and priests of Amun that declined his invitation to legitimize his right to pharaonic glory. To do this he sent 50,000 troops from Thebes in the east of Egypt into the desert. These were Persian soldiers and Egyptian conscripts, men used to the harsh deserts. However not a one of them ever made it to the oasis where the temple was. They had simply vanished into the desert. Theories have abounded to explain their fate for millennia. Herodotus believed they were lost in a sandstorm and the entire army is buried beneath the dunes of Egypt. Most recently an Egyptologist and Professor, Olaf Kaper, has said he believes they were slaughtered by the rival claimant and Cambyses just claimed they were lost to avoid the embarrassment according to some hieroglyphics he has just discovered.
Let’s jump forward about 2000 years. While we are all at least somewhat familiar with the lost colony of Roanoke, most of us never understand the immensity of it. Sure there were other colonies that failed. The initial attempts at Jamestown collapsed. The Popham colony in Maine thirteen years before the pilgrims also ceased to be. There was even a late 1600s colony near the site of Roanoke on Colleton Island that ceased to exist. These examples have one thing that Roanoke does not. We know what happened to the people. Poor planning, internecine strife and fiscal mismanagement brought those colonies to an end, and we have the records, survivors and graves to prove it. Roanoke has none of this. Here an entire colony just simply vanished from the face of the Earth in the time it took the governor to sail to England and back. Governor White had gone back to England for supplies for the struggling colony and left 115 people, including his granddaughter, and first English child born in the new world, Virginia Dare. When he returned three years later the colony was deserted. A fence post had the word Croatoan carved into it and a tree had the letters cro. All the buildings had been taken down showing it was not a hasty departure and no new graves were located. The agreed on sign that they were forced to withdraw, a Maltese cross, was not found anywhere. The people had just gone and, despite much trying and many theories, no one has figured out their fate in the intervening five hundred years.
Closer to today we have the case of the MV Joyita. This was a yacht built for a 1930s film director that was found adrift in the south pacific in 1955. But this was no luxury toy, discarded when the next shiny bauble appeared. This boat had gone from luxury yacht to U.S. Navy patrol ship to a charter boat for hauling or fishing. She was sturdy, despite some radio range issues and leaky pipes. She was found listing, but afloat, five weeks after and 600 miles off course from her last planned trip. She was found with the dingy, life rafts, emergency supplies, firearms and crew of twenty-five missing. Not a person was aboard, which was odd considering the fact that she’d been afloat all that time. Here too you find a lot of theories, from injured captains to attacks by Japanese military personnel that refused to believe the war was over, but no answers.
Apollo Mission Goodwill Displays
Here we find the theft of an object. Not too irregular, right? Things get stolen all the time. How about when twenty-seven versions of the same thing go missing? Now we have your attention. After the Apollo program managed to reach the surface of the moon, NASA put together plaques and displays of moon dust and a flag that was carried on an Apollo mission. They were made for all the United States Territories and States and multiple other countries as well as the United Nations as good will gifts by the Nixon administration. Since that time the displays from Brazil, Canada, Cyprus, Honduras, Ireland, Malta, Netherlands, Nicaragua, Norway, Romania, Spain, Sweden, Alaska, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Missouri, Nebraska, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Oregon, and West Virginia have all vanished mysteriously. Several attempts have been made to locate the displays but none have surfaced, not even on the illicit markets catering to less than scrupulous collectors. This is made more suspicious by at least five more thefts of moon materials.
While we like a mystery that ends with a solid resolution, there is something to the unexplained mystery that draws us to seek new answers and solutions. Maybe someone should write and unsolved mystery novel next?
By Lon Maxwell, Reference Department
Librarians have their own holiday week. We call it Banned Books Week and this year it runs from the 24th through the 30th of September. This is a week where we look back at classics and other printed works that have been challenged and outright banned in communities around the United States and the rest of the world. We celebrate this week not because books are banned, but because despite attempts to remove books from the public arena, these questioned titles remain available for us all. This is because we are citizens of a country that enjoys the freedom of speech.
Of course, when I say librarians I really mean the American Library Association (ALA) and when I say banned books I mean books that have been banned by or challenged in state sponsored institutions. And what is “challenged,” you say? According to ALA, “[a] challenge is an attempt to remove or restrict materials, based upon the objections of a person or group. A banning is the removal of those materials.” The ALA and its partner in organizing Banned Books Week, Amnesty International, created this week to bring awareness to the masses that censorship still exists around the world and here at home as well.
Motivations for banning or censoring books usually start out with a desire to do what is perceived as good. These are not the 1933 Nazi cleansings, the burning of books that challenge a political ideal. They are usually attempts to protect a segment of the population from concepts and ideals that some feel may be harmful to others. Nevertheless, an unwillingness to accept ideas outside of our personal world view is still censorship, protective nature notwithstanding.
Banning books in the public domain, most often schools, leads to damage to our students according to an article called “The Effects of Censorship.” “While the attempt to keep children pure for as long as possible is admirable, it takes the form of leaving gaping holes in their education, if not academically, then about life.” The author goes on to explain that missing out on knowledge that is gained from materials some might find offensive can lead to a lack of knowledge that most feel is essential.
The fear of censorship itself is also a form of censorship. Many education professors speak of the self-censorship that teachers impose on themselves. The fear of having a choice they made questioned (or getting them into trouble with the institution) leads to the avoidance of a book or topic altogether. However, one of the most important parts of education (and reading) is to study and read about both sides. First year composition courses tell students that they need to understand both sides of an argument before you can write a persuasive essay. You cannot refute an argument without understanding its underlying motivations. What we do not know, we do not know. What gaps do we all have that we are unaware of because some piece of information was denied to us?
Evelyn Hall, in her 1906 Work The Friends of Voltaire, wrote, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” Basically, the standard for protected speech cannot be defined by a person’s personal beliefs. That is the attitude taken by the ALA when it comes to banning books, going so far as to quote Noam Chomsky on their web site “If we don’t believe in freedom of expression for people we despise, we don’t believe in it at all.” Book challenges don’t know political exclusivity. They come from right and left. Banned books isn’t some week designed to just speak out on the unjust persecution of books we like, it is a time for us to stand against all censorship. Just remember, if books you find offensive are banned, what’s to stop the books you approve of and enjoy from being banned?
Banned Books Week is a celebration. It is revelry for the written word in which we can see our brightest heights and darkest depths, laid out before the world, to be seen, commented upon and preserved so that they may be remembered and judged by the future. And I am proud to live in a country that leaves its written testimony open and bare for all to see.
P.S. – The biggest thing to look for every year at this time is the top ten list. These are the most challenged books of the last year.
By Lon Maxwell and Rebecca Tischler, Reference Department
I blame my sister, it is completely her fault that I refuse to lend out books without making sure the other person understands that if it is not returned to me in the condition they borrowed it, they will buy me a brand new book. I’ve been reading, a lot, ever since a teacher told me to try actually reading the books instead of just looking at the pretty pretty pictures and making up a story. I was hooked, and bought ridiculous numbers of books. So of course, at times I was treated as a miniature lending library because of my “surplus.” I was very generous at first, especially to my sister, until she brought back one of my Harry Potter books SPLIT down the spine. SPLIT!! I repaired my poor book to the best of my abilities (I’m still waiting for it to fall apart again), and then my sister brought back another book that had WATER DAMAGE. It’d been sitting in the RAIN! THE HORROR!!!
Needless to say, I was tired of being brought back books that I had to repair (it wasn’t just my sister, but as the little sister, I feel it is my duty to put as much blame on her as possible for my quirks). Then I found out that someone who had been reading my copy of Pride and Prejudice until it was literally falling apart (who shall not be named), was buying themselves a brand new copy because they loved it sooo much they needed a copy of their own (after destroying mine). So when they showed it to me, I gave them the book they had destroyed and told them that the new copy was now MINE!!! There may even have been evil laughter. And glowing eyes… and the possibility that I grew three feet…. ANYWAY, suffice to say, that I now have rules about book lending and how others treat my books. And then I realized, these are good ideas for ANYONE. ALL books should be treated well. So a co-worked and I have decided to share ideas for, HOW TO READ A BOOK!
Take it away LON!
There are many suggestions on posture and physical attitude for reading properly, but I think they’re really just nonsense. Find the way you like to read at whatever moment you have. I have known people to hang upside down in chairs and read like that for hours. How you adjust your body is whatever suits you and your environment (I certainly wouldn’t recommend the upside down posture for, say, the bus). Maybe try book yoga.
This brings us to the book itself. For something made out of trees, books are remarkably fragile. You never want to bend a book cover back around the spine of a book. I’ve see many a paperback fall apart because someone felt it would be easier to read if they could view one page at a time. In hardbacks, this is impossible, but paperbacks are sufficiently pliable to be contorted this way. The problem is that the signatures (the individual sections of pages) are glued to the spine. When you bend the book past a certain degree the glue cracks and you can end up with chapter 27 floating free in the wind while you run after it.
When you want to mark a page, never dog ear the corner. Folding paper creates a point of weakness. Over time the corner will break off. Use a bookmark whenever possible, which means always. You don’t need one of those tasseled slips of laminated card from by the register at your favorite book store. Use whatever you have to hand. If you search your pockets wallet or purse you will most likely find a receipt from something. These make excellent improvised place holders. You will want to avoid things that may have food residue or adhesives on them as these can degrade the paper over time, so that gum wrapper is not the best idea.
Often you will find that you run across a section or passage of a book that you want to preserve or share. Writing and highlighting in books has two camps, those who shudder at the thought and those that think we who shudder need to take a deep breath more often. I hate running across a used book that I’ve been seeking for ages only to find the pages marked up by some prior bibliophile, and librarians will go apoplectic when they find it in the lending books. Personally, I endorse the use of sticky notes and flags, but only for temporary use. The preservation department of the Smithsonian Institute thinks differently. The notes and flags do leave behind an adhesive that will attract dirt and can contain chemicals harmful to the paper over time. If there is something that impresses you so much that you want to preserve, annotate or expound on it, then purchase a little journal to record the passage and your thoughts. You can even note the page in your book journal to return for later perusing.
Now for the big no-nos:
- Don’t read while you eat. Think about a bag of Cheetos and your favorite tome. Imagine how every page would end up with greasy orange fingerprints if you ate them while reading. I’m pretty sure that my wife would murder me and never feel a moments remorse if I got cool ranch powder on her first edition of Visions of Cody. The thing is, all food has these residues. They’re just not the color of orange highlighter. Food residue contains acids and oils that damage paper as well as attract bugs that eat paper like roaches. Always eat lunch while reading? Your bookcase is full of enough food particulates and paper to make a cockroach buffet.
- Don’t read in the tub, regardless of whether the book is in the tub with you or not. Paper and water do not play well. That includes the humidity that steams up your mirrors. The same goes for the beach with the added dangers of sand and salt, camping with its grime and weather, and boating with all of the above and an unsteady platform on which to place yourself. I know the joys of reading on the beach and while camping, so if you do decide to chance it, try to save it for those cheap mass market books you pick up at the pharmacy or grocery store.
After all this you may think that I’m some sort of book preservation fanatic, and you’d probably be right. I work in a library after all. However if you enjoy books, you most likely want to share that love with others. Give them the best possible book when you loan them out by avoiding simple damage. If you like these suggestions and want to learn more about preserving your collection as a whole, please see our printed material preservation article.
By Lon Maxwell, Reference Department
Since man learned that there were things in the natural world that he could bend and shape to make his life easier, inventors (however primitive they may have been at the start) have sought for new ways to make our lives easier. In some instances these inventions were stumbled across entirely by accident. Others, revolutionary at their time of inception, have become so common place that we rarely even remark on their origin. Yet these inventions and inventors have transfigured our daily life.
Think back to a time when early man began to use fire. Now we didn’t invent fire, it was most likely gathered naturally from lightning strikes and then kept burning in family shelters for up to centuries. Evidence of this can be found in a cave in China where a fire was kept burning for so long it left a bed of ashes twenty-two feet deep[i]. What they invented was a method to make fire on their own. Now, when you light your fire pit, gas oven or even just start your car, you don’t think about the amazingly complex reactions you’re continuing or their inventor. Similarly, many of the everyday inventions we use don’t even occur to us to be special.
Arguably the biggest impact on everyday life in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries comes in the form of the automobile. While steam trains predate the car, they were limited to the areas that their tracks ran leaving those outside the rail service stuck using the same method of transportation we’d been using for 5,000 years, the horse. Now a carriage comes along with nothing to pull it other than the torque provided by a new method of harnessing that fire our ancestors shepherded so carefully. It’s no wonder that some people thought the whole thing a ridiculous fad. Similarly, when we deigned to light our homes for thousands of years we burnt something: oil, wax, fat or natural gas. It is an amazing leap to move to light bulbs, something that just glowed with the application of electricity. The idea that you could just use these metal and glass contraptions that you hooked in to deadly electricity was considered quite dangerous, even by people who were used to lighting volatile natural gas in their lamps.
As you can see these inventions, along with vulcanized rubber, powered flight, assembly lines and telephones, made the turn of the nineteenth century a time when anybody could completely restructure our daily lives with the newest inventions. All of these things we take for granted were harebrained schemes and crazy pipedreams.
While many innovators have pushed the boundaries of our world with a will and determination, some have stumbled across ideas and devices completely by accident. Things we’re all used to as models of modern engineering were originally flubs, failures and freak accidents.
Take the microwave for instance. Now you get home after a long day at work, too tired to cook and you throw some leftovers in a magic box for a minute or two and it comes out hot and ready to eat (well, except for the middle, that’s still ice cold). You’d think some scientific genius would have brought this gift of intellect to us, but actually not so much. A man working with an especially strong magnetron to improve radar for the Raytheon Corporation noticed something odd. The gentleman in question was Percy Spencer, a self-taught grammar school dropout who worked hard enough and had enough natural brilliance to go from the paper mills of Maine to developing and producing radar equipment for M.I.T.’s Radiation Laboratory. He noticed that while working with the magnetron, the chocolate in his pocket melted. He wasn’t the first to see this, just the first to investigate why it happened. From this radar experiment he went on to try it on another food source, targeting a direct radar beam on the food produced a result, and now 70 years late countless households reenact his first experiments nightly when they microwaves bags of popcorn.[ii]
Matches were an accident as well. The lighter may seem newer, but it actually predates the match by three years. The new-fangled match was created when an English Pharmacist noticed a buildup of chemicals on his stirring stick. When he attempted to scrape off the offending chemicals, the stick ignited. That must have been a bit of a shock to Mr. Walker, the pharmacist in question. [iii]
By far my favorite happy accident was the Popsicle. Eleven year old Frank Epperson had been mixing a powdered fruit flavored beverage with a wooden stick. He left the drink out on a cold night and it froze. In the morning he warmed the glass and removed the ice block with its wooden stirring stick still frozen inside. By chance he took a lick of the ice and now children everywhere have one of their own to thank for one of the most famous frozen treats. [iv]
Even being at best absent minded, at worst lazy, can lead to one of the greatest inventions of all time. Dr. Alexander Fleming hadn’t cleaned his lab before leaving for his summer holidays. When he came back he found an untidy workspace that included some exposed petri dishes. Some had a strange mold on them that repelled the bacteria around it. After a little tinkering and some concerted mold culturing, Fleming was able to reproduce the accidental experiment, leading to the development of penicillin.[v]
Some inventions come into being like embryos, bearing a slight resemblance to the finished product. There are a great number of these out there that were crazy when they were first proposed, but are now gaining traction.
- Yves Rossy may have finally perfected the Jet pack we’ve all been waiting for.
- The Inter auto, a spool to spool map that moved as you drove was like a nascent GPS.
- The Laryngophone, a means for speaking over telephone lines without use of your mouth has become the modern day throat mics of pilots.
- Hugo Gernsback once decided to make a wearable pair of small cathode ray tubes to produce a 3D television experience. This concept is finally coming to fruition with google glass and all the VR headgear attachments you can buy for your smart phones.
- Even the idea of the radio controlled lawn mower is reaching fruition. Who doesn’t want a remotely operated spinning blade moving across your yard? Roomba is readying a yard version of the famous vacuum for market.
The future may hold glorious new devices or more feasible innovations on weird ideas from the past. More unforeseen consequences may lead us to new discoveries. Something you see on the “as seen on TV” shelf may turn out to change the lives of every person on earth. You never know.
[i] The Cartoon History of the Universe Vols. 1-7 By Larry Gonick, 1990 902.07 GON
By Lon Maxwell, Reference Department
By now, anyone who has strayed into the modern miasma of pop culture is familiar with the concept of giant sharks dropped in L.A. by water spouts while has-been and never-will-be actors line up to kill or be killed. It’s ridiculous. It’s impossible. It’s ludicrous. It’s not as weird as some things found in nature.
One of the most common types of odd phenomenon is the optical illusion. Our atmosphere likes to play with light a great deal more than you might expect. Take for instance the green flash. This odd blink of green light just as the top ridge of the sun hits the horizon is rumored to bring good luck in love. In actuality it is the light of the sun’s journey through more atmosphere than any other time that absorbs the lower wavelengths of light, leaving green. It’s also visible right as the sun hits the horizon at dawn, but being diurnal creatures, most of us aren’t watching for it then. Other optical phenomenon, when light and water, ice or dust interact includes sun dogs (small sun like balls on either side of the sun), light pillars (a ray of light going straight up from the sun when it is near the horizon) and arcs or rings around the sun. The most impressive are, or can be, the fata morgana. The fata morgana is a mirage caused by the drastic temperature differences in the atmosphere causing something to appear to be floating in the sky. They can be as basic as a boat appearing to be above the surface of the water to as complex as the city in the clouds seen over Foshan China in October of 2015.
The atmosphere can produce other bizarre things as well, in the form of weather phenomena. Frost flowers form on plants and frozen surfaces. They’re actually two separate phenomena. The ones that form in meadows are windblown frost crystals that accumulate into curling petal-like structures. The crystal structures at sea are formed from ice crystals freezing from the atmosphere creating long chains the stretch out similar to ferns or cacti.
Another amazing weather phenomenon is the Catatumbo Lightning. This is a raging lightning storm in Venezuela with an average of 280 strikes per hour, ten hours per day up to 260 days out of the year. The air and water currents make for a spectacular light show that has been going on for years. Although it pales in comparison with the Great Red Spot on Jupiter, a cyclonic storm that has been continually observed for over 300 years, and was probably seen earlier than that.
Tales of fish or frogs falling from the sky date back to Pliny the Elder in the first century. The predominant theory involves tornados or waterspouts picking up the animals and depositing them outside their natural habitat. There have been documented occurrences of everything from fish to frogs, to even jellyfish in England in 1864 and spiders in Australia in 2015 (no sharks though).
Natural climate activity does not have a monopoly on the unusual event front. Animals have a few crazy occurrences of their own. Crop circles have been seen all over, but under the water? Seven foot diameter patterned circles popped up off the coast of Japan. The cause is a mating display by one species of puffer fish.
Also underwater are great tube-like things called pyrosomes. The structures look like jelly fish and can stretch up to 60 feet in length, but they are not actually a single organism. Each tube is composed of hundreds or thousands of individual organisms that are actually clones of one another. These zooids such water in through mouths on the outside of the tube and all expel the water thrught the center, creating a jet like propulsion.
The red crabs of Christmas Island also observe an insane mating display. Every year in late October or early November millions of crabs make a journey from the mountains to the sea shores to mate and release their eggs on the tide. They cover the ground and cause roads to be closed. A month later a seething carpet of ant sized baby crabs return from the water and make their way back into the mountainous forests to mature.
When we think of something that is as plain as plain can be we often go to water as an example. However, water can elicit some strange effects while doing nothing out of the ordinary. At the confluence of the rivers Negro and Amazon you can see two separate rivers flow within the same banks, one brown and one black, for miles until they truly merge. In Alaska a similar situation occurs when glacial melt water encounters the sea. Both of these situations result from different particulates in the suspension of the particular body of water in question. The Negro is a slow moving river with a lot of vegetation that steeps in the river like tea, while the faster Amazon carries a lot of sediment. The Glacial melt also meets the differently dense ocean carrying particulates the leave a clear line where one starts and the other stops. The most extreme examples of this are the underwater pools. Yes, SpongeBob was right, there are pools of water under the water but I don’t think anyone wants to take a dip here. High salinity and dissolved methane mean that almost anything that goes in this pool is not leaving.
In some cases, Mother Nature is trying to add insult to injury. Imagine frozen wastelands with explosive bubbles and volcanic lightning. Methane comes back here as bubbles are forming in arctic lakes. These dangerous little spheres are close to the surface too. All it takes is an ice axe, a lighter and an extreme lack of sense to create a fountain of fire for anywhere from a few seconds to a few minutes. The methane rises from the ground beneath the lakes and usually passes through into the atmosphere, but during the winter the bubbles can be trapped, waiting for a thaw or adventurous ice fisherman. If flaming ice wasn’t bad enough try volcanic lightning. Dirty thunderstorms, as they are called, occur when the particles in a volcanic eruption build up static electricity the discharge occurs with a bolt of lightning. So you may be able to be struck by lightning while running away from lava and pyroclastic flow.
While not reaching the level of sharks dropping from the sky in danger, the natural world sure does have its share of weird and amazing phenomena.
By Lon Maxwell, Reference Department
You’ve all heard of Limericks, I’m sure
Whether racy or actually pure
They’re funny old rhymes
From good old times
And the good ones are rarely demure
They all start in jolly old Britain
Whose poems were occasionally written
In lyrical styles
To bring forth some smiles
And the poets were instantly smitten
The name, it comes from good green Erin
The Maigue Poets used to declare in
the city, Limerick.
Those bards got a kick
from the poetry style used there in.
The transition to bawdier verse
(Or something ocassionally worse).
The decade was roaring
and not a bit boring,
still, reactions were quite terse.
There once was a man, name of Lear
Who wrote them, though not very clear
His meanings were nonsense
With ridiculous contents
And his fame stretches from then to here
Some people delight to change form
From the meter and scheme as a norm
They sometimes depart
On whole, a la cart
But can do so in in whatever manner they choose and still leave it mildly humorous
So let us praise the limerick this way
On this, the Limerick’s Day
They bring joy and delight
And the length is just right
Except like now when I’m carried away!
As one last PS I must add
A very hard time I have had
To not use Nantucket
Or mention a bucket
But I know that would really be bad.