December 31, 2013

Dr. Sugar's Sing Along Blog

Today, I shall discuss one of the greatest battles I lead on a daily basis.

Think you're being healthy eating that piece of chocolate (hey, scientists tout its great effects on the body after all)? Think again! Cause it's gotten some sugar processed into it, just as so many other foods (and drinks) in the US (a globally expanding trend).  Apparently, we ingest about 22 teaspoons of sugar a day, or about 120,000 sugar calories a year (which equates to about 35 lbs of fat)!

And the sucker's slipped in nearly all of your food and sometimes under disguised names as well (would make for a great spy!).  So which are some of the greatest culprits?  Here's a small list for ya:

1.  American-Asian sauces -- the ones you find in your sesame chicken or beef teriyaki, for instance.  These usually contain (high-fructose) corn syrup, or any kind of "ose" like dextrose and maltose, which are all alternate IDs for sugar.
2.   Jams and jellies -- a lot of the major producers of these hide the sugar content by spreading it out amongst different sweeteners (that way they can make it look like fruit's the principal ingredient).
3.  Salad dressing -- especially those called "light" that have the fat content replaced with sugar instead so they can still taste good.
Bad Sugar - from randmcollective
4.  Sauces -- as in spaghetti sauce, or barbecue sauce, for example, where the sugar's used to cover the taste of the cheap oils and dehydrated vegetables used to make the sauce.
5.  Oatmeal -- avoid those added packets that can give you the same amount of sugar as two cinnamon rolls (might as well have the rolls, they're much more tasty and don't hide what they are!).
6.  Wheat bread -- enriched flours and sugar are used to improve the taste of these so-called whole wheat breads (some even have more sugar than actual dessert!).
7.  Yogurt -- example: Yoplait's original 99% fat free yogurt contained as much sugar as a bag of peanut M&Ms.
8.  Frozen Dinners -- these either contain lots of sugar or lots of salt to counteract the "nuking" effects of the microwave. "Light" dinners aren't so light either, as the fat taken out is replaced with sugar (see item number 3).
9.  Bottled Tea -- here, have some antioxidants along with some high-fructose corn syrup et al.

Yes. This is a scary, scary world, where even the foods you eat lie to you!  So my New Year's resolution is to cut down sugar as much as I possibly can out of my diet. Wish me luck!

More on the dangers of high-fructose corn syrup:

I was inspired for the title by this awesome musical called Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog.


Serious Thoughts On New Year's Eve

New Year's Eve--you'd think I could go home early
But official business keeps me.
I hold the brush and face them with tears:
Pitiful convicts in chains,
Little men who tried to fill their bellies,
Fell into the law's net, don't understand disgrace.
And I?  In love with a meager stipend
I hold on to my job and miss the chance to retire.
Do not ask who is foolish or wise;
All of us alike scheme for a meal.
The ancients would have freed them a while at New Year's--
Would I dare do likewise? I am silent with shame.
~Su Dungpo (1037-1101)
from An Introduction to Sung Poetry by Kojiro Yoshikawa, 
transl. by Burton Watson

December 25, 2013

The Little Match Girl

It was a terribly cold day. Snow was falling, and evening was coming down--the last evening of the year. Down the cold and darkened streets walked a poor little girl, without a coat to keep or shoes to keep her warm.

When she'd left the house that morning, she'd had a pair of slippers on.  They'd been her mother's, and had been too big for her.  The little girl had lost the first one running across the road to avoid a passing carriage, and the second slipper had been stolen by a boy.

And so the little girl walked in the snow barefooted until her feet were blue and red from the cold.  But she couldn't go back home.  Her father had sent her away to sell some matchsticks to the townsfolk so that they could buy some food for her and her siblings, and she dared not return without selling a single one.  And no matter how much she tried to get people to buy from her, nobody paid her any attention.

Finally, shivering with cold and hunger, the little girl crept down the streets while people hurried to get back to their warm houses.  From where she stood she could see the lights in all the nearby windows, and smell roast goose coming in the air, for it was New Year's day.

In a corner between two houses, the little girl sat down and drew up her little feet under her tattered apron. Her little hands were numb with cold.  Oh, if only she could strike one of her matches, it would make a world of difference to her!

With trembling fingers, she drew one of her precious matches and rubbed it against the wall.  Oh, how it blazed and burned brightly like a candle!

It seemed to the little girl as if she were sitting before a large iron stove with shining brass feet and knobs, warming her so delightfully!  The little girl stretched out her feet to warm them too, when whoosh, the flame went out.  The stove vanished from sight, and all she had left were the charred remains of the match.

So she lit another match, and when its light fell against the wall, it became transparent and the little girl could see through it to a large table laden with all sorts of foods.  There was a roast goose, stuffed with apples and prunes.  All of a sudden, the goose hopped down from the table and waddled along the floor towards her.  The little girl laughed until the flame went out and left her in the dark and cold street again.

Quick! She lit another match.  This time, a beautiful Christmas tree appeared before her wide eyes,
thousands of lit candles and colored pictures hanging from its branches.  The little girl reached out to touch them, but the match went out again.  She saw the lights from the Christmas tree rise into the night sky, as if to touch the stars there, until one of them fell down towards her, leaving a long, burning trail behind it.

She remembered her grandmother then, the only person who'd ever lover her.  Her grandmother had once told her that when a star fell from the sky, it meant a soul from someone dying went up to God.

The little girl rubbed another match against the wall.  Its light grew brighter and brighter until there, in the glowing warmth of the match, stood her beloved grandmother.

"Grandmother!" cried the little girl. "Take me with you! Don't disappear like the stove, the dinner and the Christmas tree did! Don't leave me all alone!"

And she quickly struck another match before the light could go out again, and another, and another, so she could keep her grandmother near her.  She used up all the matches she had on her, and the matches burned brighter than the light of day.

The grandmother smiled at the child then opened her arms, and the little girl ran to her, filled with joy.  Together, they flew back up into the sky, very, very high up where there is neither cold, nor hunger, nor fear.

The next morning, the woman living in one of the corner houses came out and found the little girl sitting against the wall.  The child's cheeks were red, and she had a smile frozen on her lips, bunt out matches strewn about the frozen ground around her.

"The child died trying to warm herself," the woman said, sadness in her voice, not imagining what the little
matchstick girl had seen the night before, nor how happy she had been to leave with her grandmother into the New Year.

December 20, 2013

Key To Unlocking Our Potential

I suppose this goes hand in hand with another famous
quote of his:
Never, never, never give up.

Continuous effort--not strength or intelligence--is the key to unlocking our potential.
~Winston Churchill

December 17, 2013

Ancient Chinese Secret Road To Wealth

Sima Qian (d. 85 BCE) was a Chinese historian who, like Herodotus with the Greeks, decided to write down the history from the most ancient times all the way down to the age of the emperor Wudi.  He was quite prolific in this task, for his Historical Records consisted of 130 chapters (over 700,000 Chinese characters) divided into Basic Annals, Chronological Tables, Treatises, Hereditary Houses and Biographies.

In his Biographies, Sima Qian describes a number of wealthy people and how they got there:

Thrift and hard work are without doubt the proper way o gain a livelihood.  And yet it will be found that rich men have invariably employed some unusual scheme or method to get to the top. Plowing the fields is a rather crude way to make a living, and yet Ch'in Yang did so well at it that he became the richest man in his province. Robbing graves is a criminal offense, but T'ien Shu got his start by doing it. Gambling is a wicked pastime, but Huan Fa used it to acquire a fortune. Most fine young men would despise the thought of traveling around peddling goods, yet Yung Lo-ch'eng got rich that way. Many people would consider trading in fats a disgraceful line of business, but Yung Po made a thousand catties of gold at it. Vending sirups is a petty occupation, but the Chang family acquired ten million cash that way. It takes little skill to sharpen knives, but because the Chih family didn't mind doing it, they could eat the best of everything. Dealing in dried sheep stomachs seems like an insignificant enough trade, but thanks to it the Cho family went around with a mounted retinue. The calling of a horse doctor is a rather ignominious profession, but it enabled Chang Li to own a house so large that he had to strike a bell to summon the servants. All of these men got where they did because of their devotion and singleness of purpose.
From this we may see that there is no fixed road to wealth, and money has no permanent master. It finds its way to the man of ability like the spokes of a wheel converging upon the hub, and from the hands of the worthless it falls like shattered tiles.

(From Records of the Grand Historian, Burton Watson)


December 10, 2013

The Importance Of A Good Night's Sleep

To students out there cramming for exams or term papers, to writers sweating blood over their latest opus, to anyone, in short, pulling all-nighters on a regular basis, a word of caution.

Here are some side effects of sleep deprivation, and they're no joke:
  • Causes accidents:  lack of sleep can slow down your reaction time as much as if you were drunk. Think that ain't so bad?  Think again. Apparently, the 1986 nuclear meltdown at Chernobyl was a result of it, among other catastrophes.
Chernobyl 25 years later
  • Dumbs you down:  sleep deprivation impairs attention, alertness, concentration, reasoning and problem solving (which would be counterproductive to all your studies/work).  This also leads you to becoming more forgetful.
  • Health problems: 
    • Heart disease/attack.
    • Irregular heartbeat.
    • High blood pressure.
    • Diabetes.
    • Inhibits growth hormone (the hormone that helps repair your body--tissues, muscles, bones, etc--and is a major fat-burning hormone as well): it's during sleep that the growth hormone's released.
    • Death.
  • No sex drive:  (ooooh, did that one get your attention?) because of depleted energy levels, sleepiness, increased tension, and for men reduction in levels of testosterone.
  • Depression:  what's worse, is that sleeplessness and depression feed on each other, like a vicious circle.
  • Ages your skin:  this is mainly due to the excess cortisol that's created because of the stress from not sleeping enough.  This cortisol breaks down skin collagen, and turns itself into layers of fat!
    • Lackluster skin.
    • Fine lines.
    • Dark circles under the eyes.
Yzma, from Disney's
The Emperor's New Groove
  • Weight gain:  increased appetite (and cravings for bad foods), as well as production of cortisol (see point 6), and the lack of the growth hormone being released (see point 3.5) all lead to weight gain.
So what would be a good amount of sleep to have?  From what I've read, 7-9 hours of sleep should work.

In addition, "[r]esearchers at Harvard Medical School conducted a study to determine under what circumstances people best come up with creative solutions.  Their findings showed that people who had a good night's sleep doubled their creative abilities. So, if you're having trouble with that plot line, skip the keg party and hit the mattress. It's better to double your creativity than your aspirin intake." (101 Habits of Highly Successful Novelists).

Dr. Berg's The 7 Principles of Fat Burning. (Yep, a healthy diet is very important too!)

December 6, 2013

Saint Nicholas, Patron Of Schoolchildren

Today, December 6th, is the day we in Belgium celebrate Saint Nicholas. According to tradition, Saint Nick goes around the country on his mule, recompensing the children who were good over the year, while his page, Black Pete in Dutch (some claim he was a slave freed by St. Nick and from then on became his lifelong companion) or the Père Fouettard in French (a monk whose face is covered in ashes and who carries a whip or baton), beats up the naughty ones (no joke).

The night before, excited children leave a few gifts for their patron Saint: a cup of coffee and a cookie, as well as a carrot for his mule, of course.  And in the morning, tadaaa, awesome presents have been left behind!

These gifts used to be oranges or nectarines (which back in the olden days were very rare and prized).  Today, we like speculoos, chocolate and marzipan, along with a toy or other present (the first I remember was a calculator to help me learn basic math, then came books the following years, which I still own to this day).

Here in the States, people have merger both Saint Nick and Father Christmas into one person. But believe you me, it's much more fun to be a kid in Belgium (or Holland, for their celebrate it too) because you have two awesome present-receiving days in December!

Traditional St. Nick food: speculoos, nectarines, chocolate,
marzipan covered in cocoa, an a cougnou bread --all super delish!
My favorite calculator in the whole wide world--
the little professor!

Additional Resources:
In French:
Saint Nicolas celebration
Cougnou bread
In English:
Saint Nicholas (aka Sinterklaas in Dutch)

December 3, 2013

The Seven Womanly Virtues

According to Ban Zhao (45 CE-116 CE), sister of the historian Ban Gu, the Chinese woman of the Han dynasty era had to exhibit seven traits to be considered virtuous:

  1. Humility.
  2. Resignation.
  3. Subservience.
  4. Self-abasement.
  5. Obedience.
  6. Cleanliness.
  7. Industry.
Boy am I glad to be living in modern times.  Being a woman back then sounds like no fun at all!

OK, so Mulan did not satisfy most of those requirements. But I just found this painting by Heather Theurer just too pretty to pass.

November 29, 2013

Let us be grateful to people who make us happy,
they are the charming gardeners who make our souls blossom. ~Marcel Proust

November 28, 2013

The First Thanksgiving

Having grown up in Europe, I'm very ignorant of American history (I know, shame on me!).  So, in celebration of this year's Thanksgiving, I decided to read a little into the history of the holiday.

According to the American textbook The American Tradition, here's how the first Thanksgiving took place:

After some exploring, the Pilgrims chose the land around Plymouth
Harbor for their settlement.  Unfortunately, they had arrived in December
and were not prepared for the new England winter.  However, they were
aided by friendly Indians, who gave them food and showed them how to grow
corn. When warm weather came, the colonists planted, fished, hunted, and
prepared themselves for the next winter. After harvesting their first
crop, they and their Indian friends celebrated the first Thanksgiving.

The First Thanksgiving

However, when delving further into the history of this country, I came up with some interesting facts which shows the truth behind this almost Disney-filtered version of history (as in happy endings for all):

  • Summer of 1526:  500 Spaniards accompanied by a hundred or so slaves, found a town near the mouth of the Pee Dee River, SC.
  • November 1526:  Slave rebellion. The 150 surviving Spaniards leave while the slaves flee to the Natives (and thereby become the first true settlers of the United States).
  • 1565:  Spaniards massacre a settlement of French Protestants at St. Augustine, FL.  They then spread out throughout the US, introducing horses, cattle, sheep, and pigs, among other things.
  • Late 1500s:  Spanish Jews settle in New Mexico.
  • 1607:  The London Company sends settlers to Jamestown, VA.
  • 1614:  Dutch living in Albany.
  • 1617:  A plague strikes in New England, making the Black Plague of Europe pale in comparison:  within 3 years, it wipes out between 90-96% of the population in southern New England.  Survivors flee the corpse-infested fields to the next tribe, bringing the disease with them so that even Natives who had never seen a white person die as well.  King James of England gives thanks to the "Almighty God in his great goodness and bounty towards us," for sending "this wonderful plague among the savages."
Pilgrims and colonists land from the Mayflower
  • 1620:  "Mythic origin of the country we now know as the United States," Plymouth Rock. The truth is that the plague has weakened the Wampanoags so much that, fearing the Narrangansetts to the west, the chief of the tribe, Massasoit, allies himself with the Pilgrims.  The Pilgrims and other colonists chose Plymouth because it already had clear fields recently planted with corn while being located near a source of fresh water.  They're helped by Squanto, a Native who's escaped slavery in Spain only to return to his devastated village and who, therefore, can't help but to throw his lot with the Pilgrims & co.
Chief Massasoit and his warriors
- Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division
  • Fall 1621:  celebration of the first Thanksgiving which is, in fact, a Native American observation of the autumnal harvest celebrations. 

Additional notes:  The Pilgrims who settled in Plymouth also suffered from disease and half of them died in the first year after their settlement in the New World.  Relations between the Pilgrims and the local natives still alive at the time also started off reasonably well.  But for the next 15 years or so, more epidemics wiped out the natives (mostly via smallpox).  Many natives surrendered then to alcohol and began to listen to Christianity (the only religion present at the time which supposedly explained the reason behind those devastating times).  This decimation of the Native tribes allowed the settlers to spread out their territory without being challenged for the next fifty years.

James W. Loewen article.

November 26, 2013

A Character's Strength

Reading through Donald Maass's The Career Novelist, I've landed on a passage that describes what this agent believes is the true reason why people can project themselves into the main characters of the story.  And it's not because that character's nice or you feel sympathy for it.  No.

As Mr. Maass describes it when talking about why he loves the character of Scarlett O'Hara is that "[s]he has qualities that [he] would like to have: courage, willfulness, pride, ego, with. One word that can sum up all of that is strength."

And so it is that Mr. Maass believes that it's the strength of the protagonists that draws readers to them.  He adds that strength is "fundamental to sympathy," so much so that sometimes, when it's the antagonist who's really strong, we tend to remember that character better than the true protagonist (ex: Hannibal Lecter).

There are different kinds of strength, however, and each evokes a different level of sympathy:

  1. Physical:  Conan the Barbarian.  
  2. Endurance:  James Bond.
  3. Cunning:  George Smiley (John le Carré character)
  4. Integrity:  Howard Roark (the Fountainhead)
  5. Love:  Jane Eyre
Conan the Barbarian; 007; George Smiley; Howard Roark; Jane Eyre

But the greatest strength, Mr. Maass argues, is self-sacrifice, which shows a true strength of spirit.

November 19, 2013

Why Trash Sells

Just reached an interesting passage in The Career Novelist that discusses why Mr. Maass believes trash books sell so much better than their "exquisite stylist" counterparts.  I know this is slightly belated (over a year or so), but I feel it to be a great response to critics of the Twilight series, or even Fifty Shades of Grey (though I haven't read the latter, and I do believe 50 Shades' success may have had more to do with the hype around its kink appeal).

His answer is simple, really.  "What most people want from a novel is not fine writing but a good story."  Though people may interpret "good" differently, but in these so-called "trash" novels, the authors have managed to "create characters to whom anyone c[an] relate, and g[iven] them problems that we all understand."

Mr. Maass doesn't just stop there, however.  He goes on to state that the more cultivated people feel such familiar subjects/characters/etc. are cliche and overused.  Yet the popularity of such novels may prove Mr. Maass's second thesis true:  "Trash sells because readers want their values and beliefs affirmed in their fiction."  In other words, "readers want a mirror in which to see themselves as they would like to be; not as they are, but as they hope to become." (I mean, why else would Photoshop be so popular?)  And the messages that these books provide "reflect profound truths," even if they sound simplistic and trite.

Mr. Maass concludes the passage with a lesson for novelists:  don't "dish tired plots on overcooked themes, but think about what you want to say:  your meaning, point, or moral. If it's something new, fine. If the message is familiar, then by all means put it across to readers in a fresh and exciting way."

November 15, 2013

Embracing Life

Tang poet Li Bai,
as imagined by the Song artist Liang Kai.

I'll wrap this Mighty Mudball of a world all up in a bag 
And be wild and free like Chaos itself!

~Li Bai (701-762)

November 12, 2013

The Art Of Propaganda

"To defeat the enemy we must rely primarily on the army with guns. But this army alone is not enough; we must also have a cultural army, which is absolutely indispensable for uniting our own ranks and defeating the enemy."
~Mao Zedong (1942)

A tactic that goes back centuries, if not more.  The Romans liked to assimilate their conquests' cultures to theirs so people wouldn't feel like rebelling.  And the use of TV and cartoons now is still used all over the world for propaganda (or brainwashing)--for "proving" a cause's "justice," or keeping people tame and happy while the government does its dirty business, for example.
North Korean Comic that shows Americans being devoured by
alligators after the later complained about human rights


November 7, 2013

The Mystery Of The Death Ship

Straight out of a scifi or horror movie, is the tale of the SS Ourang Medan.

On a hot day in June 1947, an SOS message in Morse Code is picked up by ships in the Strait of Malacca that chilled those who heard it to the bone: "All officers including captain are dead, lying in chartroom and bridge.  Possibly whole crew dead." This was followed by some gibberish, then two final words: "I die."

The message of distress is found to come from the SS Ourang Medan, a Dutch freighter, and soon an American merchant ship, the Silver Star, goes to the rescue. But as the Silver Star draws nearer to the troubled ship, the crew notices no immediate sign of life aboard.  They rush to board the Ourang Medan only to find the ship's captain dead on the bridge and the corpses of his crew laying about--even the communications officer is dead, crumpled over the telegraph.

And every single dead man bears the same expression:  one of abject terror.  Yet not one of them shows any evidence of harm.

Despite the blazing heat, the rescue team finds the ship's hold to be unpleasantly chilly as it continues its search.  Finally, when it's clear no living person is to be found, the captain of the Silver Star gives the order to tow the Ourang Medan back to shore.  However, in the process of doing so, the crew notices dark smoke billowing out of the cargo hull.  The would-be rescuers barely have a chance to cut themselves loose and rejoin the Silver Star before the Dutch ship blows apart, so violently it rises in the air before plunging back down and swiftly sinking to the bottom of the ocean.

The first official account of this unexplained event is first reported in 1952, yet there doesn't seem to be any
record of the ship itself.

Did the ship really exist? Some searchers have speculated that the SS Ourang Medan's hold may have contained highly illegal substances of "'Zyankali' (potassium cyanide) and nitroglycerin."  Others venture that the ship may have been transporting nerve gas or other biological weapons that had been created by a team of Japanese scientists whose experiments would have made the Nazis look like choirboys...

Mysterious Universe (includes more background info on the Japanese team of evil scientists).