World Savings Day – today’s other holiday

Today, 31 October is Halloween – that ain’t news to anyone. But did you know that today is also World Savings Day? This day, also known as World Thrift Day, dates back to 1924 when it was established during the 1st International Savings Bank Congress.

I am sure it felt right, on that last day of the ISB Congress, for Italian Professor Filippo Ravizza to excitedly declare that the day should in future be commemorated as an international day promoting savings all over the world. You have to wonder, however, how wise it was to establish this day on the same day already celebrated as Halloween.  Let’s see, what shall we do today – go for fancy dress and trick-or-treat, or discuss the value of a thrifty life? Yes, well, no wonder you don’t see too many Savings Day headlines on this day…

Changing from ‘financial fate’ to ‘financial fortune’ can be as simple as switching from a credit to a debit account.
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Of course the idea promoted by World Savings Day is a very good one – if everyone took a slightly more thrifty approach to life, and opted to save up for something rather than buy it on credit to pay off later, they’d be amazed how much further their money stretched. And the world wouldn’t be in the dire financial state it finds itself in.

The financial repercussions of a consumerist lifestyle, where shops make it very easy and appealing for people to buy now and pay later, rather than living debt free, is still not well understood by many people, and they are all too easily tempted into an ever deepening circle of credit and debt and eventual financial ruin. Understanding the value of saving is a critical life skill, and teaching children from an early age to save money in a savings account, or even just a piggy bank, can have life-long benefits.

So here’s to World Savings Day, the other October 31st holiday. While you may not be able to avoid the costumes and candy on this day, you can still teach the kids some degree of thrift by making homemade candy rather than buying from the shops, and even making a project of creating Halloween costumes from secondhand material. And then, when all the Halloween fun is over, pop all the money not spent on candy and costumes into their piggy banks, or help them deposit it into their savings accounts. Who knows, that might just get the message across.

Commemorating the end of shoe rationing

Today is a good day to celebrate shoes – leather and rubber shoes in particular. Because today we commemorate the day in 1945 when the US government announced the end of shoe rationing.

In the Second World War, many things were rationed in various parts of the world, due to production delays, lack of raw materials, etc. As it happens, one of these was shoes (here’s a nice story about the WWII shoe rationing in the US). Apparently, serious rubber shortages at the time meant that rubber shoes were in very short supply, and the military’s leather requirements (for boots, jackets and more) resulted in limitations also being placed on leather shoes.

Having more than one pair of rubber work boots in the home must have been quite a luxury in the early 1940s.
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From 1942, rubber boots and rubber work shoes were rationed – you had to apply for a new pair at a rationing board, and if your application was approved, you had to turn in your old pair. And only work shoes were allowed – no sports sneakers could be purchased. Similarly, rationing of leather shoes started in 1943. Each person (adult and child) was allowed up to 3 pairs of new leather shoes per year, bought using special rationing stamps.

And then, on 30 October 1945 – a happy day for shoe lovers! – the rationing was lifted. Men were again able to buy as many pairs of work boots as they liked. Shoe addicts were no longer bound by the painful limit of three pairs of new must-have’s a year. Children could get all the shoes they needed to accommodate their growing feet. And athletes could burn through as many pairs of sneakers as they wanted.

I for one would have easily been able to carry on as normal during the great WWII shoe rationing – shoes are practical things, after all, and surely don’t need replacing until they fall apart, do they? And, in most cases, they’re not even good for you – as I’ve mentioned before, you’re definitely better off going barefoot when possible. So the whole shoe addiction thing is a bit of a mystery to me.

After 1945, those who cannot say no to a pretty shoe could again shop to their heart’s content.
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In trying to add a bit of science to this post, I thought I might be able to find some research on the topic of shoe addiction, but alas, that seems to be a field of study that’s still wide open for psychologists and cognitive scientists. And it’s not as if there’s a lack of outspoken test subjects out there – just Google “shoe addiction” and you will be swamped in millions of blog-posts and other articles from self-confessed shoe addicts. From the average girl next door who would happily forego food for a week to afford another special pair of shoes, to Danielle Steele, who apparently owns in excess of 6000 pairs (quite an interesting addiction, by the way, for a writer who, one would assume, should be spending a significant amount of her time in front of a keyboard…).

So, where do you stand on the shoe debate – are they an undeniable passion or a necessary evil?

Recharge your batteries with some alone-time on Hermit Day

It’s Monday, the start of yet another busy week. Today, as we speed towards the end of the year at an ever increasing speed, rushing to get everything done in our ever-busier lives, we celebrate a special day that may be just what the doctor ordered – today is Hermit Day.

A hermit, according to the Free Dictionary, is “a person who has withdrawn from society and lives a solitary existence; a recluse.” While the concept of a hermit traditionally has religious connotations, and is specifically associated with people who choose to live a life of ascetic seclusion out of religious conviction, it can also be more generally applied. As stated in Wikipedia, “In modern colloquial usage, the term ‘hermit’ denotes anyone living a life apart from the rest of society, or who simply does not participate in social events as much as is common, regardless of their motivation in doing so, including the misanthrope.”

Spending some quality alone-time can help put the bigger picture in perspective.
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So, today is the day to shun all those tiring social responsibilities and to spend some me-time. Stay inside, or if the weather is good, spend some alone time in the garden, or go walk a secluded trail. Heck, stay in bed if you you feel that’s what you need. Unplug the phone, switch off the mobile, just avoid all social contact for a day.

OK, in this age of connectedness you may need a slightly earlier warning to plan for a day of total seclusion, but even if you cannot spend the entire day by yourself, try to at least spend some alone-time to recharge your batteries. And maybe make a concerted effort to plan your own personal hermit day for some other time – it can do you a world of good.

In a 2011 Boston Globe article called The Power of Lonely, it is reported that, despite the oft publicized benefits of social concepts like collaborative innovation, group-therapy, social support structures etc, there is an emerging body of research suggesting that some seclusion and alone-time can be very beneficial. The article (a good read, by the way) lists research hinting at the positive impact that alone-time can have on memory recall and creative thinking. It is also suggested that spending time by ourselves improves our subsequent interactions with others when we have to return to more social activities.

An important factor differentiating between solitude being a positive or negative experience, is whether that solitude is by choice. When we choose to spend some time alone, the time can be beneficial on many levels. If, on the other hand, we are isolated or secluded against our will, the association tends to be much more negative and can be a rather harmful experience.

Perhaps one of the best quotes on the value of voluntary seclusion comes from the great scientist and inventor Nikola Tesla, who once said “The mind is sharper and keener in seclusion and uninterrupted solitude. Originality thrives in seclusion free of outside influences beating upon us to cripple the creative mind. Be alone—that is the secret of invention: be alone. That is when ideas are born.”

Learning to live off the land on Wild Foods Day

Today, 28 October, is Wild Foods Day, a day to celebrate edible wild plants. Wild-growing fruits and vegetables have through the ages been a key food source for many people, and these foods are now starting to get their time to shine, with more and more gourmet chefs introducing unique twists on their menus through the incorporation of wild fruits, root crops etc.

Being unprocessed and thus free from pesticides and other interventions, wild fruits and vegetables are also an eco-friendly choice, and many argue that fruits and veges grown without intervention has an intensity of flavour not found in more cultivated varieties – hence the wonderful wine made from free-growing bushvine grapes, for example.

A bowl of freshly picked wild blackberries, ready to be made into a wonderful blackberry and port jam.
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On this day, you are encouraged to learn about, and find, wild fruits that grow in your area. It is amazing how much edible stuff there is freely available around us if we just know what to look for – from herbs to edible flowers and leaves to all kinds of berries and other fruits. Just remember that not all pleasant-looking berries etc are edible – some will leave you with a pretty sore tummy, or much worse. It is definitely recommended that you do your homework before setting off to ‘live off the land’!

On the section of land where we live, we have a huge crop of wild blackberries growing freely against a hill. While the aggressively spreading plants can be a pest most of the year, berry season is a exciting, fun, thorny time – you have to be very careful to avoid some rather painful stings from the thorny bramble shoots when harvesting the intensely sour-sweet black fruit. The thorns are definitely not enough to deter the children of the area, hence the common sight during this time of year of kids walking around with reddish-black stained faces and hands.

Melt in the mouth homemade scones with fresh cream and tart blackberry jam.
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While these berries are great to eat as is, their abundance mean that you’re better off processing some for later use. A personal favourite solution to this ‘problem’ is blackberry jam – an absolute winner served with cream on a homemade scone.

Do you have any interesting wild food growing where you live? Have you eaten it, or processed it for later consumption?  Any interesting tales to share?

Celebrating the birthday of Captain James Cook, explorer extraordinaire

Today is the birthday of James Cook, British explorer and navigator, born this day in 1728. While of Scottish descent, his shadow looms so large over the history of New Zealand (and Australia) that he may as well have been an honorary citizen of the region.

A man of skill and courage, Cook made three great voyages of discovery to the Pacific Ocean, and it was during the first of these that, among other things, he became the first European to reach the eastern coastline of Australia, and the first person to do a circumnavigation of New Zealand. He was the second European to reach New Zealand, 127 years after Abel Tasman. His mapping of the coastline of New Zealand was amazingly accurate and detailed, and he named many of the landmarks he discovered, including Cook Strait, the section of ocean separating New Zealand’s North and South Islands.

A painting of James Cook, by New Zealand artist Julia B Lynch, on display in the James Cook Hotel in Wellington.

An interesting tale about his first Pacific voyage is that he was initially engaged by the Royal Society to travel to Tahiti from where he was to observe and record the 1769 Transit of Venus. Unfortunately the separate measurements taken by Cook, astronomer Charles Green and Swedish naturalist Daniel Solander, differed significantly, making the results from the measurements less conclusive than was hoped.

All was not lost, however, as there was a secret second part to his voyage – he had sealed orders from the Admiralty containing details of the second part of his voyage – he was to search the south Pacific ocean for the fabled rich continent of Terra Australis. These orders were kept secret to give the British the best chance of discovering Australia under the guise of an innocent scientific expedition to perform astronomical measurements.

Cook apparently had doubts about the existence of Australia, but thanks to the help of a Tahitian called Tupaia, who was an expert in the geography of the Pacific region, the second part of his journey proved highly successful. Cook first reached New Zealand in October 1769, mapping it in its entirety over a period of 6 months, before voyaging further west to reach the south-eastern coast of Australia.

Upon reaching New Zealand, Cook made the following entry in his journal on 8 October 1769: “The land on the Sea Coast is high, with Steep Cliffs; and back inland are very high Mountains. The face of the Country is of a hilly surface, and appears to be cloathed with wood and Verdure.”

A hilly, forest-covered country – quite a succinct description for New Zealand, and probably not all that different to my first impression of the country as I gazed out of the airplane window when I first arrived here almost 240 years after Captain Cook.

So here’s to Captain James Cook, from the hills of New Zealand. 🙂

A good excuse to howl at the moon

Today is the last Friday in October, the last Friday before Halloween, which means tonight is Howl at the Moon Night. If you’re a fan of Twilight, or any of the vampire franchises, this may be old news to you, and you’ll be all excited and prepared for this night already. On the other hand, if (like me), the whole vampire scene fails to move you, you can always take this opportunity to get rid of some pent-up frustration by indulging in a good holler once the moon appears over the horizon. I’m not suggesting the whole primal therapy trip that was so popular in the early 70s – all I’m saying is that a good yell, howl, holler or scream can do wonders for your stress levels, and if there’s a day (or night) giving you the perfect opportunity to let it rip, why not?

It may not quite be full moon yet, but the last Friday evening of October is just the excuse you need for a good holler at the moon.
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Of course, unless you work the night shift, you’re unlikely to be at work when the yelling starts. Which is a pity, given that a study reported in The Independent indicates that freely expressing anger in the workplace is a good way of keeping your heart healthy. Apparently, people who suffer in silence after unfair treatment at work have twice the risk of dying from heart disease compared to those who vent their anger. Researchers from the University of Stockholm followed 2755 male workers for a period of 13 years, from 1990 to 2003, measuring their blood pressure, body mass index and cholesterol levels, and related this to their coping mechanisms at work. After correcting for biological factors, they found those who bottled up their anger had higher blood pressure and were twice as likely to suffer from heart disease. Studies on women showed similar trends, though not as pronounced as their male counterparts.

The value of a good yell is widely acknowledged.  American psychiatrist Dr Peter Calafiura says that yelling can have a positive mental influence.  It triggers endorphins, resulting in a natural high, and a generally good feeling. This is very similar to the well-known runner’s high, so perhaps today is a good day to skip your post-work run and rather have a howl at the moon – it should result in an equally good mood!

Happy howling, everyone!  A-hooooooooooooooooooooo!


Singing the praises of pasta

Fettuccine, ravioli, lasagne, tortellini, cannelloni, spaghetti, macaroni… If (like me) the mere mention of these words make your mouth water, you’ll be happy to know that today, 25 October, is World Pasta Day.

And this is not just some willy-nilly food day like Chocolate Milkshake Day or Hamburger Day, this is serious stuff. The idea for a World Pasta Day was born out of the World Pasta Congress held in Rome on this day back in 1995. To quote the Union of Organisations of Manufactures of Pasta Products of the EU (UN.A.F.P.A. – believe it or not, there actually is such an organisation):

“Account was taken and stress was laid on the importance of spreading to the utmost the knowledge of pasta among consumers throughout the world by means of collective initiatives of promotional nature and institutional information campaigns. 

The countries with greatest experience in this field made available their know-how for the benefit of those countries which have only recently come to realise the virtues and merits of pasta.”

It all sounds terribly formal, but basically the idea of the day is to organise annual events around the world to promote the benefits of pasta and show that it is “appropriate for a dynamic and healthy life style capable of meeting both primary food requirements and those of high-level gastronomy.”

Lasagne with homemade pasta – that’ll hit the spot!
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I’m all for it, of course. If I had pick a favourite category of food, pasta would definitely be at or near the top. Its versatility makes it ideal for everything from a quick snack to a hearty home meal to a gastronomic feast.  And I know many people share this passion – quite amazing for a simple dough made from only flour and egg. But of course the magic doesn’t lie in the pasta itself, but in the way it serves as the perfect base for anything from a basic sauce or pesto to a mouthwatering combination of vegetables, meats or seafood.

And the best part of it is that pasta can be enjoyed as part of a healthy diet. Pasta is a good source of complex carbohydrates, low in sodium, cholesterol free and (in the case of whole wheat pasta) a good source of fibre. And of course it works well with other healthy foods – to quote the Pasta Fits website, it is the perfect partner for “fiber-filled vegetables and beans, heart-healthy fish and vegetable oils, antioxidant-rich tomato sauce and protein-packed cheese, poultry and lean meats.”

While pasta may be traditionally Italian cuisine, the rest of the world has certainly caught on to its appeal. The Italians still eat by far the most pasta (26 kg per capita per year, according the the International Pasta Organisation’s 2010 consumption figures), but Venezuela, Tunisia and Greece also consume more than 10 kg per person, while Switzerland (9.7kg), USA (9.0kg), France (8.1kg), Germany (7.7kg) aren’t too far behind. Australia is a bit down the list, at 4kg per capita, and I have no idea what the figure for New Zealand is. (While the USA may not top the per capita list, they consume the most pasta in total – almost a quarter of the global consumption!)

But wait, enough talking – I’m ready for a good hearty lasagne. Buon appetito!

United Nations Day and the need for coordinated action

Today the United Nations celebrate two special observances – World Development Information Day and UN Day. Both of these focus in some sense on the work done by the UN since it’s establishment in 1945, with World Development Information Day focusing specifically on the sharing of development information among UN member states.

Given the dire conditions millions of people are living in, and the massive challenges facing the world in terms of getting even close to realising the Millennium Development Goals of 2015, the UN has a critical role to play around coordination of activities and initiatives across the globe and among its members.

Maternal health and child health are among the topics addressed by Millennium Development Goals set forth by the UN.
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The UN is active on many fronts – peace, development, human rights, the environment and the empowerment of women and children. In the words of UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, “The United Nations is not just a meeting place for diplomats. The United Nations is a peacekeeper disarming fighters, a health worker distributing medicine, a relief team aiding refugees, a human rights expert helping deliver justice.”

The eradication of poverty and hunger – another of the themes of the Millennium Development Goals.
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In pursuing these initiatives, the UN depends on countless groups and organisations – NGOs, researchers, philanthropists, champions from the business world, religious leaders and academics. Beyond these there’s the contribution everyday citizens can make – individually, we may not be able to achieve the stretching targets set forth to better the world, but if actions are coordinated and everyone pulls in the same direction, miracles are possible.

Get ready for the Molar Eclipse!

Today is October 23rd; 10-23.

If you’re involved in any way with the field of chemistry, 10 to the power 23 should ring a bell – Avogadro’s constant, 6.02 x 10^23, the number of particles in a ‘mole’ of a substance, is a basic quantity in chemistry.  To quote wikipedia:
“The mole is a unit of measurement used in chemistry to express amounts of a chemical substance, defined as an amount of a substance that contains as many elementary entities (e.g., atoms, molecules, ions, electrons) as there are atoms in 12 grams of pure carbon-12, the isotope of carbon with atomic weight 12. This corresponds to a value of 6.02214179×10^23 elementary entities of the substance. It is one of the base units in the International System of Units, and has the unit symbol mol.”

In celebration of the above, Mole Day is celebrated on October 23rd, from 6:02 am to 6:02 pm. Generally the day involves activities that represent puns on ‘mole’ or ‘avogadro’. For 2012, the official theme for Mole Day is ‘Molar Eclipse’.

Mole Day was created to foster an interest in chemistry.
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So how do you celebrate this day? Well, you can go on a molercoaster ride, or make a meal with avogadro dip or guaca-mole sauce. Have a Rock ‘n’ Mole party. Whatever you do, involve as many of your friends as possible – the mole the merrier! 🙂

I’m sure readers of this blog will be able to come up with many funnier, punnier activities to engage in on Mole Day – any suggestions?