Want a preview of Coop the Great? For a glimpse at the story behind the title, check out the book's trailer.
Want a preview of Coop the Great? For a glimpse at the story behind the title, check out the book's trailer.
With the holiday season upon us, Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is front and center in various media forms from the original text to film adaptations like The Muppet Christmas Carol with Michael Caine as Ebenezer Scrooge (my favourite film version), But what is the story behind Dickens’ masterpiece? What was his inspiration? How was he able to write the entire novel in just six weeks without the aid of computers, spell check, and the Internet?
From a post of last year, here is the back story to A Christmas Story.
All in all, 1843 was not a good year for Charles Dickens, especially late 1843. American Notes, a narrative about Dickens’ travels to Canada & the United States, sold well the previous year. In 1843, sales slumped. Feeling that Dickens was poking fun at them, Americans steered away from the book.
In 1843, Dickens published Martin Chuzzlewitt. Like other books, it was released through newspapers in chapter-by-chapter installments. English readers lost interest quickly. Americans, already irritated, only became more annoyed.
Dicken’s reputation as a best-selling author took a hit. So did his income. He had mouths to feed – 4 children with a 5th on the way – and writing was his primary source of revenue. By late 1843, things were looking bleak.
Charles Dickens had been poor before. In 1824, when he was twelve, his father was imprisoned. John Dickens had run into debt. Unable to pay his debtors, all his household goods – furniture included – were sold and John was incarcerated at Marshalsea Debtor’s Prison. Ultimately forced to give up their home, Charles’ mother and siblings moved into prison with his father. To sustain himself, Charles pawned his own possessions, left school, and found alternate lodging. He worked for meager wages in a boot-blacking factory, pasting labels onto pots of blacking.
The experience affected Dickens’ entire life. Keenly aware of the social injustices and terrible working conditions facing the poor, especially children, Dickens advocated for change. He toured the Cornish tin mines, wrote articles, and challenged parliamentarians to do something.
In the fall of 1843, Dickens travelled from London to Manchester to speak about child labour and the plight of the poor at a fundraiser. On October 5 , 1843, he spoke to a capacity crowd at the Manchester Athenaeum. The sight of healthy, well-fed people in the audience contrasted sharply with the poor, overburdened subjects of his lecture. With Christmas not far off, the contrast cut even deeper.
With two books on the wane, with the plight of the poor so evident, and with the Christmas season drawing near, Dickens plotted a new novel during his three days in Manchester. When he returned to London, he started writing. Within six weeks, he had a complete manuscript.
Released on the 19th of December in 1843, A Christmas Carol was an immediate success on a number of fronts. The book breathed life into Dickens’ fading career and restored his reputation. The cast of characters echoed the deep divisions of society and highlighted the appalling conditions facing the poor. The tale of retribution rang true and reinforced the spirit of Christmas giving.
All the elements of success fit except one. The book did little to buffer Dickens’ sagging income. The first edition was too lavish, the price wasfix iPhone 6 home button not working too low, and Dickens’ profit was marginal.
The rest, as they say, is history. Dickens’ story of tight-fisted, mean-spirited Ebenezer Scrooge’s conversion to generosity and congeniality is a Christmas classic, told and retold now for almost 175 years.
Are there lessons to be learned from Dickens’ experience for those who write? Probably there many, but for me, one stands out. Dickens wrote about something that deeply mattered to him. Passion drove his story, and that is evident on every page. Find your passion – the subject you can’t wait to explore, the message you just have to deliver – and while you may not write in the style of Dickens, perhaps the words will align with speed and clarity.
For more about Charles Dickens check http://www.dickensfellowship.org
We came to the British Museum with a purpose in mind. In hindsight, it was probably a good thing that our focus was narrow because the British Museum is a rambling place, filled with thousands of antiquities. Our Frommer’s Easyguide to London gave this saucy description: “If you don’t know what to look for, the Museum will be a stupefying series of rooms notable mostly for the zombified tourists staggering through them.”
In that respect, the guide was right. Dazed tourists, numbed and overwhelmed, were everywhere. But Jo and I came with a list of items to track down. All we had to do was find them.
I’ve had a life-long interest in treasure. Writing Lost Treasures: True Stories of Discovery and Mysteries of Time gave me the opportunity to delve into the subject. Several items from the books were on display at the Museum. This was my chance to see them,
The Rosetta Stone
Truly a marvel. It was discovered in 1799 by Napoleon’s soldiers as they set about demolishing a walled fortress near Rosetta, Egypt. Until then, no one knew how to interpret hieroglyphics, but the stone was coded in three languages – one of them hieroglyphics – all delivering the same message. By comparing the hieroglyphic message with the two other known languages, Frenchman Jean-Francois Champollion cracked the code and unleash thousands of years of previously lost Egyptian history.
Discovered by Gordon Butcher in 1938 as he plowed a field in Mildenhall, England, the Mildenhall Treasure yielded a vast array of objects – dishes, bowls, goblets, spoons, ladles and coins. The treasure dates to 400 A.D. and was likely buried by a wealthy Roman family to hide it from invading armies. It is the single most valuable find of Roman silver ever located in Britain.
In 1939, archeologists probed earthen mounds on the property of Edith Pretty, near the estate of Sutton Hoo in Suffolk, England. Deep beneath the soil, they discovered an immense burial site likely of Viking origin. Among the goodies: the remains of a boat over 8 metres long, gold jewellery, gem encrusted swords and scepters, silver bowls, dishes and spoons, a gold purse containing twenty-seven gold coins, and helmets like the one shown above.
The Hoxne Hoard
The Hoxne Hoard was found in 1992 by Eric Lawes who was using a metal detector to find a hammer in a field near Hoxne, England, In all, the Roman treasure yielded 14,780 coins as well as assorted jewellery, pepper pots, ladles, silver toothpicks and silver spoons. Historians believe that the treasure was hidden in the ground around 400 AD by a wealthy Roman family during a time of war.
A photograph in a recent National Geographic article caught my attention. It showed an immense, gnarled apple tree with limbs spreading high above a country home at Woolsthorpe Manor, England.
Trees, especially old and gnarled ones like this, have long fascinated me. What events did they stand witness to? What stories might they tell if only they could speak?
In the case of the National Geographic apple tree, what was noteworthy was not the tree’s size or location, nor the fact that it was centuries old. What made it noteworthy was what happened under the tree.
In 1666, Isaac Newton sat under the tree. In a contemplative mood, he observed a falling apple. Why does an apple always drop perpendicularly to the ground? he wondered. He reasoned that some type of force made the apples fall as they did, and from that Newton went on to the derive laws of physics that stand to this day.
During Poland’s occupation in World War II, the Nazi rounded up Warsaw’s 450,000 Jews, and herded them into a 16-square block section of the city. Disguised as a nurse, Irena Sendler – an administrator with the Warsaw Social Welfare Department – infiltrated the heavily secured Warsaw ghetto. She visited families, administering medicine where needed to avoid suspicion, but intent on something far riskier – smuggling Jews, especially children, out of the ghetto.
Often, Irena escaped with children hidden in sacks, boxes, body bags or coffins inside an ambulance. Other times, Irena led them to freedom through sewers or holes in the ghetto wall.
Once outside the ghetto, the children were given new names and false family histories. A network of fellow conspirators placed the children in homes, orphanages and convents around the country. To track the location of the rescued children so they could be returned to their proper families at the end of the war, Irena then made a trip to a neighbour’s garden. In the dirt below an apple tree, she hid glass jars stuffed with tissue paper containing the original names and new identities of the children.
For 16 months, Irena continued her dangerous mission, rescuing over 2500 children from the ghetto. On October 20, 1943, she was arrested. Interrogated, tortured, and sentenced to death by firing squad. With the help of of other conspirators, Irena escaped and went into hiding for the remainder of the war.
After the war, Irena recovered the glass jars. Equipped with lists of names, she spent years tracking down rescued children. When possible, she reconnected them with parents or grandparents.
In 1999, four Kansas teenagers working on a school project about the Holocaust uncovered Irena Sendler’s largely forgotten story. They tracked her down and wrote a short play about her deeds called Life in a Jar. With her story now public, Irena received awards and commendations. In 2007, at the age of 97, she was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.kingroot android
So there you have it. Two apple trees, unremarkable in appearance, but remarkable for the secrets they harbor from history.
Over the phone, Don Bell is matter-of-fact and modest, as if just about anyone could have accomplished what he, Henry Isaak, and David Lumgair did. But others didn’t – at least not initially, nor to the same degree – and you don’t have to look far to find proof of their legacy. It’s a floor below the indoor hockey rink in Morden, Manitoba, in a sprawling space called the Canadian Fossil Discovery Centre (CFDC).
During my research for ‘Dinosaurs’ of the Deep: Discover Prehistoric Marine Life (Turnstone Press), Don Bell’s name came up often. “He knows more than almost anyone,” someone at CFDC told me. “You should call him.”
So I did. “Can you tell me how this all started?” I asked.
“We were on a canoe trip,” Don said.
In quick steps, Don covered the story of a 1972 canoe trip involving a group of paddlers. Don, Henry and Dave were in one canoe, keeping leisurely pace with the others. At a stop for lunch, discussion ensued about a recent discovery of dinosaur bones in the Morden area.
“Hank and I were interested,” Don said.
Bitten by curiosity, Don and Henry, both teachers, struck out at 6 a.m. on a later weekend to search for the fossil. A mile west of Morden’s Stanley Park, they turned south and drove another 300 metres. Lying exposed in a field, they discovered a large fossil skull. Immediately, they realized that it was not a dinosaur, but a long-extinct – and very large – marine reptile.
“We knew it was important,” Don added.
Ill-equipped to bring the skull home, Don and Henry drove back to town to regroup. By the time they returned, two young fellows were there, hammering the fossil to pieces.
The Morden region lies at the edge of the Manitoba Escarpment. Eighty million years ago, at the time of the dinosaurs, the Western Interior Seaway sliced across North American dividing it in half. The escarpment is a by-product of Manitoba’s watery past and a rich source of marine fossils from that period.
At the time, the Pembina Mountain Clays Company had been mining the area for bentonite, a type of volcanic clay used in detergents and other products. Fossils turned up frequently, often crunched to bits by heavy equipment.
Realizing the scale of destruction, Don and Henry embarked on a mission to save as many as possible. The two got to know the miners and struck up a deal. When fossils surfaced, miners placed a call to the pair. In the evening, after the miners shut down for the day, Don and Henry salvaged what they could before operations resumed in the morning. Sometimes they worked through the night, excavating and jacketing fossils by the glow of headlights. They carted their prizes home and stored them in Henry’s garage and Don’s basement.
Knowing the demands of teaching, I couldn’t imagine a life of all-nighters. “What kept you going?” I asked Don.
“To me it was exciting, discovering something that hadn’t been discovered before,” he said.
What started as a small-scale operation mushroomed. Interest spread. Volunteers joined the effort. Henry tapped into government grants and hired university students to help. The pair consulted paleontologists and made weekend field trips to Kansas City, Drumheller, and the University of Calgary, places with Late Cretaceous fossils and people with the necessary know-how.
Early on, David Lumgair – the third man in the canoe – got involved, too. He lived on a farm near Thornhill, a few kilometres from Morden. Fossils often surfaced on his land, and Dave had an open-door policy when it came to the growing brood of fossil hunters. He welcomed them and let them set up shop on his property.
In just two years, the ambitious team unearthed 30 mosasaurs, 20 plesiosaurs, and hundreds of other fossils from the region around Morden. In 1974, David’s farm yielded a spectacular prize – an immense mosasaur. Nicknamed Bruce, it took several seasons to unearth and jacket the entire creature.
Eventually, the collection of fossils outgrew Don’s basement and Henry’s garage. It was moved to the Morden and District Museum, and then in 1976 to its present quarters in the lower level of Morden’s Community Centre.
Today, the Canadian Fossil Discovery Centre is a world-class institution. It houses Canada’s largest collection of Late Cretaceous marine vertebrate fossils. The undisputed star of the Centre is Bruce. The sprawling 13-metre-long mosasaur is the world’s largest exhibited mosasaur and a Guinness record-holder..
The Morden area continues to yield fossil treasures, and new finds are constantly being added to CFDC’s holdings. The place is a buzzing hive of research and educational programs, and a fitting reminder of what three people hooked by passion and persistence can achieve.
This post was previously published on the Sci/Why blogsite where “Canadian children’s writers discuss science, words, and the eternal question – why?”
For a while now, Crayola has been teasing crayon lovers worldwide. Months ago, the company announced the removal of Dandelion from its palette of yellows and oranges. In March, Crayola issued a news release saying that Dandelion’s replacement would be in the blue family. Then, days ago, the crayon giant added another tidbit of information. The replacement would be a newly invented, never seen before, hue of blue with a backstory as unique as its name, “YInMn Blue”.
YinMin Blue was discovered by accident. In 2009, Mas Subramanian, an Oregon State University (OSU) chemist, discovered the color with his grad student, Andrew Smith. The two were heating batches of manganese to 1200 °C (~2000 °F) hoping to produce a high-efficiency electronic material. After one attempt, Smith pulled a striking, brilliant-blue compound out of the furnace. Subramanian knew right off it was a research breakthrough. Unwittingly, they had created a shade of blue unlike any other from a combination of yttrium, indium, manganese and oxygen.bluestacks for windows
Recognizing opportunity, Subramanian and his team shifted gears. They expanded their research. To date, they have created a range of new pigments, everything from bright oranges to vibrant hues of purple, turquoise and green.
Serendipitous discoveries of this sort are not uncommon, and history is ripe with examples. X-rays, penicillin, Kevlar, and the nicotine patch are but a few products that owe their existence to a happy accident. But it takes something more than a serendipitous event to yield a useful product. It takes a mind like Subramanian’s to recognize opportunity, a mind that can connect the dots, shift gears, and capitalize on unexpected circumstances.
What goes on in such a mind? Brain research provides clues. The corpus callosum, a thick band of more than 200 million nerve fibres, connects the left and right hemisphere. Think of it as a busy freeway where impulses fire back and forth, facilitating communication between the two sides of the brain.
In brain studies, neuroscientists discovered that the corpus callosum of creative individuals was thicker than normal. In such brains, there appears to be more communication between the two hemispheres and greater potential of connecting seeming disconnected ideas.
Not every brain hardwired with a thick callosum connects the dots and capitalizes on unexpected circumstances, however. And it doesn’t mean that a brain with a thin callosum cannot be a member of the discovery club either. There’s more at play to taking advantage of serendipitous events than simple brain mechanics.
Over a century ago, Louis Pasteur made a major discovery after his lab assistants neglected a batch of petri dishes. Wondering how this would affect his results, Pasteur opted to carry on the experiment. His decision led to a major breakthrough in the development of vaccines.
Luck played a role in the discovery. The lab assistants messed up, providing Pasteur with opportunity. But Pasteur recognized that more than luck was involved, too. Knowledge and experience combined with curiosity seem to be part of the formula. Or, to quote Pasteur’s famous line, ‘Chance favours the prepared mind’.
There you go, crayon lovers. Colour on with Crayola’s new blue knowing that you are holding chance between your fingers.
For more about Louis Pasteur and 80 other chance and circumstance discoveries check out Accidental Discoveries: From Laughing Gas to Dynamite.
Not every story requires a wordy telling. Sometimes a well-positioned image or object can evoke stronger emotions and deeper meanings than words allow.
I am reminded of this simple fact whenever I look at this photo that Jo snapped when we visited Budapest, Hungary two years ago. On our second day in the city, we boarded a bus for a tour of Budapest. Bus tours are often the best ways to get an overview of a new place, and this one was especially interesting since our tour guide salted her presentation with a running commentary on Hungary’s history and politics.
When we passed the majestic Parliament Buildings with their red-tiled roofs, our guide pointed to a memorial along the banks of the Danube River. From the bus we really couldn’t see it, but later in the day we returned for a closer look.
Sixty pairs of rusted shoes cast out of iron lined the bank. Some were tiny, others 10 sizes larger. Spaced 30 or so centimeters apart, the shoes ranged from dress to informal: high heels and wing-tips to sneakers and children’s boots.
The impact was immediate. Viewed together, the shoes told of a brutal period. On March 19, 1944 German troops occupied Hungary. Hitler deposed Prime Minister Miklós Kállay and appointed as head of state, Ferenc Szálasi, leader of the Nyilaskereszt (Arrow Cross) fascist party.
From 1944-1945, Szálasi embarked on a reign of terror. Intent on following Hitler’s extermination plan, Szálasi and his Arrow Cross militiamen stripped Hungarian Jews and dissidents of their businesses and possessions, herded them into ghettos, and deported tens of thousands to Auschwitz. Still others were marched to the edge of the Danube. Once lined along the bank, men, women and children were forced to remove their shoes, strip naked, and face the river. A firing squad opened fire, shooting at close range. Like cut timber, the bodies fell into the river and drifted downstream. Thousands died in this fashion, so many that eyewitnesses reported that the Danube was stained red with blood.
Determined not to let the event fade from memory, film director Can Togay and sculptor Gyula Pauer created the Shoes on the Danube Bank memorial on the west side of the river, just in front of the Parliament Buildings. At three points behind the shoes are simple signs in Hungarian, English and Hebrew: “To the memory of the victims shot into the Danube by Arrow Cross militiamen in 1944-45. Erected 16 April 2005.”
Looking at the photo Jo took, I feel much the same as I did when I first saw the shoe memorial. Locked in the image is a tragic story, one of rights trampled, brutality imposed and lives lost that is not easily forgotten.
I discovered the story of Dave the Potter while doing research for At the Edge: Daring Acts in Desperate Times. I didn’t write the story then, not because it didn’t qualify, but because adding it would up the already hefty word count. It is a story that I wanted to tell, however, and here it is:
No one knows exactly when Dave the Potter was born or when he died. No one knows his real last name, what he looked like, if he had a wife or children, or much else about him either. He is known by several names, Dave the Potter being the most common, and what little we know about this man comes from the pottery he made and left behind. Together the hundreds of jars, jugs, pots and pieces of stoneware he created tell a remarkable and daring story.
Dave the Potter was a Black slave who lived in South Carolina in the 1800s. For a time, Dave worked in a pottery factory outside the town of Edgefield. There he learned how to use a potter’s wheel and kiln to transform clay into large and sturdy vessels. At some point, he learned another skill too, one that was forbidden to slaves, one that was dangerous to share publicly. Dave the Potter learned to read and write.
At the time, education of slaves was forbidden. Harsh penalties could be applied to slaves who showed that they could read or write. Dave the Potter ignored the dangers. Around 1840, he starting signing his work, boldly writing ‘Dave’ on the shoulder of some vessels. Later, he added short rhymes or poems.
Some were simple couplets:
Put every bit all between/surely this jar will hold 14
Others were commentaries on slavery:
I wonder where is all my relations/Friendship to all – and every nation.
Still others carried cryptic messages with directions for runaways escaping to the north:
Follow the Drinking Gourd (Big Dipper)/For the old man is a-waiting for to carry you to freedom
Besides their distinctive poetry, most of Dave’s pottery is signed simply ‘Dave’ or bear a horseshoe symbol, slash mark, an X or LM (for Lewis Miles, the man who owned the pottery workshop where Dave worked).
Today, Dave’s pots are collector items that sell for thousands of dollars, and his pottery is part of the Civil War Collection at the Smithsonian. Each handcrafted piece is a bold statement, a remarkable act of defiance.
Dave’s legacy is beautifully explored in Dave the Potter: Artist, Poet, Slave, an award-winning picture book written by Laban Carrick Hill & illustrated by Bryan Collier.
A couple of years ago, a prison break in New York State made headlines. Convicted murderers David Sweat and Richard Matt cut through steel walls in the back of their adjoining cells, crawled down a catwalk, broke through a brick wall, then sliced through steel pipes, locks and chains to pry open a manhole cover and flee the scene. They left behind power tools, blankets stuffed with clothes to mimic their sleeping bodies. They also left a cheeky smiley-face drawing with the message ‘Have a nice day’, and a trail of suspicion.
In newsfeed, reporters called the prison break ‘sophisticated’ and ‘Shawshank-redemption like’. As bold and creative as the escape was, in my opinion it holds a dim candle to an earlier prison break. While it’s only speculation, this one may have influenced Stephen King when he wrote Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption, the novella on which the film was based. It might have inspired the two escapees from New York State, too. You be the judge.
On the night of June 11, 1962, three prisoners in Alcatraz’ s ‘escape-proof’ prison fled their separate cells through holes chiseled out of the flaky concrete around air vents under the sinks along the far walls. That gave them access to a utility corridor behind it. It had taken 9 months of coordinated effort to reach this point – nine months of scratching the wall each evening with metal spoons stolen from the kitchen and drilling with an improvised drill made from a broken vacuum cleaner. To keep their work hidden, Frank Morris and brothers Clarence and John Anglin covered the holes with cardboard grills and draped pants over the faucets.
On the night of their escape, the three tucked life-like dummy heads under blankets fluffed with clothes. The heads were works of art, crafted out of soap and toilet paper, topped with hair clippings from the prison barbershop, and painted with flesh-tone paint stolen from the prison art shop.
Once inside the utility corridor, the men climbed plumbing pipes to reach a small landing. They squeezed through a ventilation shaft that led to the roof, ran across the top and slithered down a vertical pipe to the ground. Lugging a raft made out of 50 green prison-issued raincoats and oars carved from plywood taken from the maintenance shed, the three prisoners skirted down the hill to the water’s edge.
Despite an intense manhunt, neither the escaped prisoners nor their bodies were ever found, leading to a wave of speculation. Did the inmates make it or did they die trying to cross the choppy, shark infested and bone-numbingly cold waters of San Francisco Bay? The FBI file is still open and active, pending further information.
So there you have it. A bold attempt, with elements similar to Shawshank Redemption and the New York prison break. Inspiration or pure coincidence?
At first glance, the cube looked simple: six movable faces, each able to rotate on its center with a simple twist, each face split into nine small cubes. But with almost unlimited possibilities, the cube was the ultimate challenge.
In the early 1970s Enro Rubik, a professor at the Academy of Applied Arts in Budapest, Hungary, noticed the difficulty his students had understanding complicated ideas in mathematics. He figured that if his students could twist a solid shape into new combinations of color and design, they would learn mathematics more easily.
In his spare time, Rubik designed a six-colored cube. At first glance it looked simple: six movable faces, each able to rotate on its center with a simple twist, each face split into nine small cubes. But it was the combination of color and movement that made Rubik’s invention a challenge. Each corner cube could be turned in three possible directions, and because each cube had three colors on its sides, a single twist produced a different arrangement of colors.
It took only a few twists to scramble the colors. Once scrambled, however, could the original pattern be restored? That was the challenge of Rubik’s Cube. When people got their hands on the cube they couldn’t put it down. They were hooked, and that’s what gave Rubik the idea that his invention might be more than just a tool for mathematics.
In 1977 a Hungarian companyipad mini 5 release date began selling Rubik’s Cube. Then in 1980 the Ideal Toy Corporation bought the rights. Soon the cube craze spread around the globe.
The label on Rubik’s Cube says, “There are three billion positions, but only one solution.” In fact, there are 43,252,003,274, 489,856,000 positions. That’s about 43 quintillion!
To solve Rubik’s Cube, the user must think like a computer programmer: first breaking the solution into small sequences, then breaking those into even smaller sequences.
Many people take days to solve the puzzle. Rubik himself could do it in about two minutes.