28 August 2013

500 Days of Summer (or more like 70)

Today is the last day of summer vacation for me (and many others).

The first post I made this summer was the classical music one where I enumerated some of my favorite classical pieces. I still remember that morning, getting up and banging out the words since I was in a daze, that summer was at last here. I'd had lots of stress since April and at last I could relax. (From May, where I only posted 3 times, one of them as a freakin' blog note, to July, where I posted 13 times, which sounds normal to you but unbelievable to me, shows how much I love summer.) Note: I did say once that when school started I'd be at Triviality 20. I'm at 18, which isn't bad, but 20 is actually impossible. I could have gotten up to 19, but not 20. If that makes any sense.

That night I saw the summer solstice for the first time. I discussed that as well, the only time I've ever had two posts in one day (though the blog won't show that, due to my editing tricks with dates) and so on.

Usually when this time comes I forget most of my vacation and things I did. Not so this time. Partly because of this blog, I'm able to remember topics I was studying. Usually I only remember the week-long vacations I take abroad or a pool or a chat with friends or something. If it hadn't been for Infinite Mind, I'd have forgotten I had an obsession with Nikola Tesla, I was bored (well, maybe not forgotten that), or that I discussed pictures.

I've done a lot this summer, possibly more than other summers. Though it wasn't as great as the summer of my 7th grade (two years ago), this one was a lot of fun. I went up north, I did 3 summer assignments (including 100 chemistry problems and an essay that was challenging because I wrote 650 words when I needed only 500 at the most), and blogged on here. I read a 1000-page book, something I don't think I've done since 2009, and 8 other books in less than 15 days. I went through 5 decades of the 1900s in six weeks (I was obsessed with the twenties, watched silent movies, listened to big bands, studied WWII on my own, did a makeshift sock hop in my room, wrote a '50s story, and beyond.)

This year will be much more challenging. I will take 2 AP classes as a sophomore, and 2 honors classes. I'll be in a journalism-cum-yearbook program full time, head a grade level in a club, and go through confirmation. It will all be hell at certain points.

But at the same time I need to relax. I'm notorious for stressing out over things that I needn't worry about. Which is why I am going to say, here, right now: I will try not to let this blog die, at least 4 posts per month at the least, and attempt to make myself less nervous and stressed out. Will it be hard? Definitely. Will it all be worth it in the end? Perhaps.

But I can keep on going. There's only 295 days till summer vacation rolls around again. 293 until my birthday. It may seem impossibly long, but when I think back and feel that 2011 was just yesterday, when in reality it was two years ago, then I know it's possible to wait.

Smile on. Summer vacation will come around again. All we have to do is wait.


27 August 2013

James Holman Explained

At last, I get to discuss James Holman! Another obscure British guy, just like Samuel Johnson (but I promise that this one didn't write a dictionary and obscure things.)

Imagine you were blind. On top of being blind, you suffered severe rheumatism and arthritis that left you in constant pain. Every time you tried to get up in the morning, you would suffer such severe pain that you couldn't get out of bed and you'd have to lie there. Now imagine traveling all by yourself in distant lands with those disabilities. Alone, far away from your native country (Britain, let's say). Now imagine travelling over 250,000 miles (400,000 kilometers) all over the world, surpassing everyone's efforts of all time. Can you?

Welcome to the strange, inspiring, exciting world of James Holman, the "Blind Traveller".

Too bad he couldn't see this painting, but oh well...
He was awesome.

James Holman, oddly and unfairly, is astonishingly forgotten about in today's "travelling society". What do I mean by "travelling society"? Think back two hundred years. There were only two ways of travelling: through water, by ship, which could either give you scurvy (until 1850-thereabouts), long routes and seasickness, or by land, which could be dangerous (mountains, etc). So most people didn't travel unless you were a sailor, a marchant, or eccentric.

James Holman belonged to all three of these. He was in the Royal Navy officially, he grew up in his father's apothecary, and he was definitely an eccentric (in the eyes of Victorian society, where the farthest people travelled was to the nearest coffeeshop to read the latest Dickens serial.)

Holman was born in 1786, the fourth son of his parents. He began working in the apothecary as soon as he was old enough, and then joined the Royal Navy at the age of 13 as a volunteer. Nine years later he'd become a lieutenant. However in 1810 he'd succumb to a disease that affected his joints, then finally made him completely blind at the age of 25.

In spite of all of this, Holman persevered. In those days, to be blind meant you were a pariah to all, scorned and avoided on the streets. The higher classes would assume you were mentally deranged, the lower orders would assume you had syphilis or something and stay well away from you. He was given free room and board in Windsor Castle in exchange for praying at church twice a day, but that didn't go so well with him.

Holman realized that this would be his only chance of exploring the worlds beyond he'd heard about many times in the Navy and by merchants. He requested many leaves of absence by the Navy, as excuses to go and study first, then to go on a Grand Tour.

Side Note: The Grand Tour is basically something upper-class men did when they became of age, around 21-25. They would go to the "Continent" (Americans, that's the European continent) if they were British, and begin around France. They'd visit different countries, peoples, and experience culture. It'd last about 2 or 3 years, which upon ending, they would return home and be considered a man. Best manhood test I've ever heard in any society.

Holman decided to travel the world west-to-east: which was unheard of at the time, but is now generally accepted. (US to Europe to Asia, etc) He began his journey and travelled as far as Siberia and Mongolia. By that time, the Russian Czar believed he was a spy and sent Holman back to Poland. Holman returned but now he vowed to visit even more lands.

By this he amazingly succeeded. He visited South America and befriended natives. He charted unknown areas of Africa and vigorously tried to stop the slave trade (which got him a river named in his honor). He went to the Pacific Islands and more. He published many books, though his last book, completed a week before his death, was never published and "likely has not survived". Holman died at 70.

And how exactly did a blind man do a trip, alone, during some of the most dangerous times ever? He turned to the bats. Holman took a cane everywhere with him, which he'd tap on the ground or on nearby areas and hear the sounds and reverberations. Echolocation, quite basically. Of course, many distrusted this and many thought he was a fraud since people can be quite narrow-minded, which is likely how this remarkable man became forgotten in the first place.

If you want to find out more, read A Sense of the World by Jason Roberts. Very inspiring.


24 August 2013

Alchemy Explained

Rob's Note: If it's of any interest, looking at the latest reports from Blogger, the three most-viewed Trivialities are, respectively: I (Geography), 6 (the VOC), and 8 (Alien Hand Syndrome). Least viewed? 15 (the Naming Catalog). Make of that what you will.

I've been pressed for trivia things and interest to write this week, but better late than never. Also: return of the index cards (at least one).

Today's topic: Alchemy. It's so fascinating. I don't care that it doesn't exist anymore. It's mystical, enthralling, and perfectly Romantic. And there's so much about it that's just interesting.

“And, when you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it.”
 ~Paulo Coelho, The Alchemist

The subject: Alchemy was basically the precursor to chemistry. It involved mixing known chemicals and solutions to achieve main goals: the philosopher's stone, base metals to gold, synthesization of alkahest, and a medicine that would cure anything.

Most people know only the whole lead-into-gold thing, but there was a lot more behind it, as explained above. Unfortunately the Interweb doesn't help because the only way to look up info is by the completely reliable Wikipedia and the mystical crockery sites that are really just mumbo-jumbo. (Google alchemy if you don't believe me.) And alchemy isn't mumbo jumbo. It was considered a real science for two millennia. It was believed as credible by many eminent peoples of the day, like Ibn-Sina (Avicenna), who cured smallpox almost 1000 years before it was eradicated. It was just a product of its day and age, like horses and carriages, the Rolling Stones, and Quantum Pads (I just always make the topic return to me, don't I...)

Back to the topic. Alchemy began with the Greeks (like most everything else out there) when they believed in what we'll call the classical elements, namely Earth, Wind and Fire Water, Air, Earth, and Fire.

To the Greeks and others, everything fell into place neatly. You burn wood, with fire and air, and earth was converted. It was remarkably simple...or so history'd have you believe. But there was so much complexity and breadth with alchemy. It wasn't just mixing potions. There were symbols that had to be used to denote chemicals. Many chemicals were synthesized and given names we use today (vitrol, ammonia, etc.)

Some famous alchemists? Isaac Newton, interestingly, who was certain that one day he'd discover the true answers to heaven and earth in alchemy. In addition, there was the most badass priest ever, Roger Bacon, who turned cryptography into an art, wrote plans for flying machines, studied the Mongols, and was jailed for "focusing on such dangerous novelties" as opposed the Church. There was Trithemius, another famous cryptographer, who invented the tableau. The more classical ones that Victor Frankenstein worshipped: Paracelsus, and Cornelius Agrippa. Finally, arguably the most famous: John Dee, Queen Elizabeth (the first's, obviously) doctor, who was a rather odd fellow. (He was an expert on the occult, crystal balls and all.)

Side Note: Nicolas Flamel, from Harry Potter and a bunch of other books, was NOT a real alchemist. He was a book publisher and printer. His "reputation" sprang up after his death, ironically. Sorry to burst anyone who's looking for him for the Stone's bubble. (Hermione...Harry...Ron...)

During the Middle Ages people didn't think highly of alchemists. In general many considered them thieves and charlatans, and of course the Church almost immediately branded them heretics. It was a very sensitive and mystical thing, alchemy...the symbols used in writing down metals and other formulas would be interpreted as signs to summon the Devil, and spirits. (Read Faust, there's a bit in the first part that proves this.)

So I stated above some pretty interesting things: the philosopher's stone, base metals to gold, synthesization of alkahest, and a medicine that would cure anything. Do they sound like things from Lord of the Rings, Narnia, or Harry Potter? Let me explain.

The philosopher's stone most everyone's heard. A stone with the power to turn base metals (lead, nickel, tin, etc.) to gold or the regal metals (silver, platinum, and copper). However, according to the Hermetic principles (basically philosophers), this represented purification, balance, and all that jazz.

Alkahest is more interesting. It was considered "the solvent of everything". For the uninitiated in chemistry, a solvent is something that dissolves something else. Think of water. That's considered the "universal solvent" because it's pretty good at dissolving. But even water has its limits (think oil and nonpolar substances). Alkahest would dissolve EVERYTHING. Even gold and other precious metals. Of course, this went nowhere, but that didn't stop Paracelsus from trying.

The medicine that cured anything...that's kinda obvious. It didn't go anywhere.

So of course, with this system that most people branded heretical, it had to end. Remember, of course, it included a mix of magic, the occult, some outdated theories (new-dated, at the time) and more. So eventually it had to go. Enter Robert Boyle (one of the many epic scientists named Robert: Robert Brown, Robert Millikan, Robert Chambers, and Robert Bunsen.) In the 1660s he published a book called The Skeptical Chemist (if you're outdated like me, The Scyptical Chymist). That was pretty much the death knell for alchemy, as everyone started rushing in and adding order and refinement. It all was a paper chain that has led to chemistry as we know it. Which is just awesome!

But of course, I wouldn't mind being a mystical alchemist...


22 August 2013

Questions Without Answers

I have a bunch of questions that I have no answers to. Well, I will answer them. But I'm interested to see what everyone here thinks! So as a result, I will list these questions -- twenty five of them -- and see what you, readers and lurkers, think are the answers. I'd love to hear everyone's answers! You don't have to answer every question, just the ones you like. Or whatever. I will post my answers soon.

Is this the real life? Or rather: Is this just fantasy?

Here's a personal favorite: Dear Sir or Madam, will you read my book?

A bit too close to home: How many roads does a man walk down before you can call him a man?

Saddening: All the lonely people - where do they come from?

One Harry Potter might like: Do you believe in magic?

Ooh, this one's cold: How does it feel to be on your own, to be without a home, like a complete unknown, like a rolling stone?

I might have covered this back in an April post... Will you still love me, when I'm no longer young and beautiful? 

Nice answer to this one: How could you leave on Yom Kippur?

If this is what I call home then why do I feel so alone?

Haunting one: Is it in your genes?

Don't think too wrong of this one: "Come on girls, are you ready to play?"

Why don't you do right, get me some money too?

Every relationship partner's fear: Do you know what it feels like to be the last one to know the lock on the door has changed?

One that is perhaps too not like me: Would you dance, if you asked me to dance? 

Every capitalist's nightmare: What about all the things that you said we were to gain?

Oh, who would ever want to be king?

No Walking Dead references here...or is there: Am I a dead man now, living with the pain?

Sort of coincides with the above: Is it over yet, will I ever feel again?

He was a boy, she was a girl, can I make it any more obvious?

Secret message in this one: If you see Kay, will you tell her I love her?

Very true one here: How many special people change, how many lives are living strange?

Could it be that we have been this way before?

Haunting: Is your conscience all right, does it plague you at night?

Too mystical for my tastes: Did you make it to the Milky Way and see the lights all faded, and that Heaven is overrated?

What in the world does your company take me for?

And the most ominous one of all, with shades of Sara Teasdale... If we dissolved without a trace, would the real world even care?

All of these songs are personal favorites of mine and make up a substantial part of my personal, secret playlist. Or did. Bonus points if you guess which songs they are, with singers of course. 


19 August 2013

On History (Or, Lessons That You Could Learn From The Past)

I just finished reading a world history book. Re-reading's a better term; I've had this book for more than two years.

For anyone interested in a fun, easy read about world history, it's called A Little History of the World, by Ernst Gombrich. (Note: it's Eurocentric, which I'll discuss below, and somewhat childish. It was written for kids to understand, but it's still very mature and readable.)

History is largely scorned and forgotten about in modern society. Ask any 15-year-old who ruled France after the Monarchy, and you will likely get one of these three responses:

a) Huh? I dunno.
b) Napoleon, I'm pretty sure.
c) Which time?

Napoleon gets a bad rap, imo.
Photo Credit: Wikipedia
The first response is most likely to be heard. The second is also sort of common, if you're talking to a reasonably intellectual person who knows history in degrees, and should be commended. And the third response (which res ipsa loquitur, I would totally respond with) is actually the most correct. The monarchy was replaced twice. Three times, if you count the Hundred Days of Napoleon.

History can be very useful. Extremely. George Bernard Shaw once said,
We learn from history that we learn nothing from history.
Overreacting? But Shaw was right. Many, many times, over the course of human history, whether it was Romulus Augustulus losing the Roman Empire, to Napoleon reinstalling the aspects of the ancien regime, to the VOC bringing themselves to their knees with corruption for the third time, to Hitler plunging Germany into another war, to anything repetitive and useless: we have done it before, and if it hasn't, it will be done again.

It's important to learn about history for these reasons. True, it's unlikely that you'll start a world war or give up the world's most powerful empire, but think about your own history. If you promised yourself you'd stay up to study once and just started getting distracted, and you have to study tonight, you might want to not be distracted. Just a vague way of explaining.

You should take the time and effort to pay attention in your history class or to read a history book. History can be very interesting if you learn about it the right way. You can do this a number of ways. The one that will get you most through your history class is to lose your sense of knowing. Let me explain.

Imagine you're a Dutch sailor with, let's say, the VOC. (See here if you don't know what it is or you've forgotten.) The year is 1645 and the New World awaits. You've always wanted to go visit the colonies along there, including New Amsterdam! Imagine what it must be like. If you've ever been on a boat or even a plane, imagine seeing a new place for the first time from far off. Imagine the new people you'll meet: Native Americans, merchants, Pilgrims and Puritans, and even some of your "fellow sailors". I find that usually works.

Not all of history is fun though. Even I have to concede that. There are parts of history that I will barely discuss or mention or not even study, maybe, because I find it boring. (case in point: The Catholic Church, the Byzantine Empire, Ancient Greece, and the Incas.) Those are my boring spots: everything else I'm eager to learn. But even if you bear a hatred to all types of history, you should still try to at least learn one thing about it. You'll seem smarter, you'll be a better person because of it because you'll learn how something somewhere affected someone, and humans in general have done some pretty crazy things.

Take the Amber Room, my most recent Triviality column. Could you ever have imagined a whole room a quarter the size of a football field covered in amber? It's amazing even to me and I've spent a lot of time researching it and knowing it as such.

History is not without its weak points. It's biased. Remarkably. That's a history student's job - to cover everything equally. From the 1500s to about 1950, Europe ruled the world in empires and monarchies. As a result, we have classes that only cover Europe. We have textbooks that cover the British monarchy in 3 chapters and only a paragraph is devoted to slavery in Africa, or what-have-you. It's important to look beyond the historical bias and look at the larger picture. (I'm slightly to blame - I've devoted columns to Dutch empires, Danish kings and Spanish colonial systems. I am making it my job to discuss other aspects of history.) But we are getting better, which equality in all aspects of society, which is just awesome! It's pretty amazing, when you see how everything can work out together. There will be always be shining moments in history, even in the darkest of moments.

What's your favorite part about history?


13 August 2013

The Amber Room Explained

Rob's Note: I'm done with labelling Trivialities by Roman numerals. I love Roman numerals, I do, but sooner or later we'll get to Triviality MMLXXIX or something (though 1979's pretty unlikely) and yeah. Now every Triviality will just be a topic followed by "explained". Not that it matters, but if you're looking for the latest Trivialities, they'll just be labelled as explained. :P

Who's in the mood for treasure? :)

I've been meaning to discuss this very fascinating subject around the time of VOC, when I wrote it, but I never got to it. I simply forgot. I've known about this topic for a long time, based on a certain overpriced unnamed children's book series about history. But what that book series told about the Amber Room was very little, and most was speculation. This post may have some wistfullness in it, but just bear with my nerdness. To set the record straight through all the secrets and stuff, well, that's today's mission.

First off: what is amber? C10 H16 O. :) (Or, for those who love Fringe, it's the stuff the Parallel Universe uses to seal off wormholes. Amber 31422...but I digress. We're not in the Altverse today.) :

What's the Amber Room, then? The Amber Room was a room made of amber, as you've probably guessed. "But wait!" I hear you calling. "What's amber, anyhow? Who would make a room made of amber? Wouldn't it break because amber tends to become brittle and harden with age and completely crumble? And how would it last?" These are all good questions. Your answers...

The book/card/online melange that started
it all, pretty much. Not the construction. My
interest. :P
Photo Credit: Scholastic!

The history of this (faux) gilded room began in the early 1700s, when the King of Prussia (if you've forgotten your world history lessons, Prussia was mostly Germany and Poland, especially the coasts) decided to create a room for himself of amber. He hired architects from Germany, Denmark, and Russia to help create this magnificent, dizzying work of art.

So how did it in end up in Russia? Some fifteen years later, Peter the Great was on a visit and he admired the room greatly. The king had changed - it wasn't the original one who had commissioned the room - so he decided to give it to Peter as a peace offering in 1716, hoping for an alliance against Sweden.

How do you move a room? "Very carefully, in little tiny pieces. And then they put it back together again," as Patrick Carman put it in a chat I had the pleasure of attending back in 2009.

Basically they took the pieces apart and shipped them in lots of boxes to Russia, where it was put together in the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg (or St. Petersburgh, if you're Mary Shelley.)

Some forty years later, in 1755, Czarina Elisabeth decided to move it to her palace, the elegantly named Catherine Palace at Tsarskoye Selo (for the unlinguisted, including me, that's The Czar's Village). With her, and Catherine the Great, the two immediately embellished it, making it even more dramatic, opulent, beautiful, and star-studded than it had ever been. More sheets of amber were imported from Italy, jewels were added around the walls and ornaments to make it shinier. It took over 15 years, and in the end it was just dizzying. It was now around 592 whopping feet square (about 55 square metres for the metrics).

How much? Historians estimate that in today's money, it'd have cost $142 million dollars (more by now, it's inflation that's tricky). In addition to amber, the walls had gold behind them to support. It was that opulent. I can't even describe it (for why we shall presently see.)

So the room was there for almost 2 centuries. Then it all...disappeared.

Photo Credit: Roland Weihrauch /dpa /Corbis

"How did a giant room of fossilised insects disappear, Rob?"

The same way said room traveled to two different places in just 50 freakin' years. (Treasure can be really cool if learned about the right way. See? Rooms that move!)

During WWII, the Nazis were pretty much trying to find everything shiny and pretty to glorify themselves. A room made of fossilised stone and animals? Sure. In a name that was surely picked out of an Italian textbook, "Operation Barbarossa" was basically an excuse for the plundering and taking of art treasures. Since Prussia used to be part of Germany, the Nazis wanted it, naturally.

So the Russians desperately tried hiding it, covering it up with wallpaper, but remember, amber's brittle, and how do you hide a room, anyway? (The only question I can't answer today.) It didn't work. Himmler found out, and the Amber Room was immediately swarmed with insects who broke free from the amber Nazi curators and artists who knew how to take it out, the same way it was done in 1755 and 1716.

This is a close-up of a little piece. Some
have insects inside, some don't. All
carbon, hydrogen, oxygen. Isn't chemistry
Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Reports from this point get sketchy. Some say it was placed in a castle which was destroyed in an air raid. Some say it was taken in a submarine to Berlin and bombed on the way. Some say aliens. Either way, it was never seen again. Except for two pieces, oddly, which were stolen by some soldiers, and given to their families, and which were passed down through the years. One was a mosaic, which the family had no idea how it had gotten into their family. (Most likely a war trophy.)

All hope is not lost, though. A few decades ago, the Russians decided to rebuild the room for national pride. It took lots of efforts in part by the German and Russian governments, and many people donated. Those two pieces I mentioned above were tracked down and placed. In the end, after more than 30 years, the brand-new Amber Room was unveiled by President Vladimir Putin in 2003, in time for the (almost) 300-year anniversary of the Room's turbulent history. It cost about $11 million and is on display for all of us to see (well, those who want to hop on a plane to Russia and look at a room. I would!)

See? Treasure can be fun. :) Depends on what kind of treasure. And for the record, when insects get put into amber, they are converted to inorganic (not living) material. Sorry, Jurassic Park. You just wanted to be alive again, didn't you, dinosaurs... :) And Fringe Amber, too.


Sources: Wikipedia, The Black Circle (not a lot, though), US News, Smithsonian.

Click here to see last week's Triviality.

06 August 2013

Triviality XV: Catalogo Alfabetico de Apellidos

Another column related to empires and a foreign name. Just like the VOC! Unfortunately this doesn't have a cool symbol that is aesthetically pleasing.

Today's topic is the Catalogo Alfabetico de Apellidos, which is Spanish for The Alphabetical Catalogue of Last Names. It's exactly what it sounds like, an catalogue of last names in alphabetical last names.

Why is it interesting? You shall see in due course. As you may know, I enjoy names - giving them to characters in my stories, sure, but more importantly, changing my own. As a budding writer I enjoy writing my stories under different, exotic names, and this is where the column comes in. Because I enjoy adopting many nom de plumes, monikers and pseudonyms. (Some of my more memorable: Kodiak Marlitaine, Fra Charletoir, Duc de Rimbaud, Marc Trevani, and Jackson Kirkland.)

Back to the column. What is this list? The answer: a list that the Spanish government created for the Filipino peoples in the 1800s, who were under their rule. This is evident in the last names of many Filipinos, who have Hispanic last names.

Some history: While Europe was busy ruling the world, as we all know, Spain was ruling the Philippine Islands. Of course the Spaniards were busy converting the natives to Christianity, and so as a result many chose new names for themselves. It got to a point where many Filipinos were picking the same names (de los Santos, de los Reyes, etc) which, for the Spaniards, was a nightmare for census and tax purposes. In addition, it was just really confusing for people to not have last names, or even worse, different members of the same family having different names!

As a result in 1849, the Governor General of the Philippines, Narciso Claveria y Zaldua, (not gonna comment on that name being so close to Narcissus) issued a decree to stop this confusion once and for all. He created a list of last names for everyone living on the islands (and other islands around the East Indies).

The list itself was not terribly long - only 150 or so pages, and wasn't terribly organized (it had spelling mistakes, and names weren't in alphabetical order in some cases) and more. It skipped some letters (but that's okay, because Spanish didn't have an I at the time, and it sure doesn't have a W unless it's a foreign word).

It's worth mentioning that not all of the names were Spanish. Many of them were. However the Governor General was known for his concerns for the peoples and would often talk to many of them to see what he could do to make their lives better. As a result many names were culled from local tribes and families, to make it a bit more ethnic.

A copy was sent to every local head of state of the island, for the families to pick their names. However it was extremely disorganized. Several islands and barangays (a sort of village) did follow the decree extremely strictly, but some leaders were extremely lackluster, sending only parts of the book to certain villages (so one village would end up with everyone having a last name beginning with G, or H) and some leaders just ignored it. (Some say that you can tell where a person comes from by the letter of their last name. I'm awaiting confirmation on that.)

For the most part the catalog worked and as a result everyone got last names, and naming order was at last established. Mostly. :)


Click here to see last week's Triviality.

02 August 2013

Country Facts I: Oceania

At long last - Country Facts!

This is the first column about country facts here on InfiniteMind! What are Country Facts? Exactly what the name sounds like: country facts! Each column will deal with countries that are related to each other, whether it be by name, or population, or similarities in latitude/area, or even continent.

This is the only one that is ordered by continent, namely the continent (region, if you want to get technical) of Oceania: the Pacific islands! (Australia and New Zealand are not counted, they will be in a different post.)

This column will run every two weeks, on alternating  Fridays. This is so you and me don't get overloaded by trivia columns (remember, Trivialities are supposed to be weekly. I'm not changing that. This column should be done by the end of the year, maybe sooner if I hurry up.)

Here are 12 weird and interesting facts about the sadly often-forgotten, beautiful islands of the South Seas.

But first off, a little bit on Oceania and at least what it is.

Many people think Australia is a continent. You could say that. There's no definite answer. We've been debating it since Captain Cook and the whalers discovered it and there won't be an end. However, the Pacific has quite a lot of islands and of course people live on those islands.

As a result we can't leave those poor islands alone without a continent so many geographers use the region of Oceania instead. My Quantum Pad refers to it as "Australia and the Regions of Oceania". As a result there are 14 nations. One borders Indonesia yet because of plate tectonics and stuff it's considered Oceania. There's Australia, New Zealand, and the other islands I'll list here.

1. Nauru
(unofficial) Capital: Yaren district
Ah, Nauru. If you don't count Vatican City, it's the smallest country by area and population. You can literally jog around the 13-mile island in an hour. It's also the fattest country in the world: 97% of all Nauru men and women are overweight. However, there really isn't a lot of fast food on the island; it's more a matter of them eating too much. How did this come around? In the '60s and '70s, Nauru was the richest country in the world due to phosphate mining, which has since left the island stripped of resources, poor, and exploited.

2. Marshall Islands
Capital: Majuro
The Marshall Islands is home to the Bikini Atoll. (The bikini came out the same week that nuclear testing began on the Atoll, hence its name.) However due to exhaustive nuclear tests in WWII and beyond, today the atoll is uninhabitable. (What's an atoll? A ring shaped coral rim. This is the edge of one, in Hawaii.)

3. Papua New Guinea
Capital: Port Moresby
Papua New Guinea is the country with the most languages spoken, with over 830 languages spoken between 4 million people, which makes the country extremely diverse and multiglottal. As a result English is usually spoken in important matters like law and such, because it's a common language that puts everyone at a disadvantage.

4. (Federated States of) Micronesia
Capital: Palikir
This four-island nation has the US Dollar as currency. This dates back from when the US pretty much controlled half the Pacific region, including some of the nations on here. As a result when Micronesia got its independence they really didn't see a point in changing the money that the people were used to and so to this day they use the US Dollar.

5. Fiji
Capital: Suva
In 1867, a missionary named Thomas Baker was subject to cannibalism along with some of his followers. It's notable because he was the last person to be cannibalized in the country. While he was originally welcomed in the local village where he was preaching, somehow the tribe got angry.

A beach in Fiji. Photo Credit: Wikipedia
6. Samoa
Capital: Apia
Not the cookies - there's an actual country called Samoa! Before called "Western" Samoa, and not to be confused with American Samoa, this tiny island nation decided to "move" west of the International Date Line, to join Asia and Australia. (The IDL used to go right through the island.)

7. Kiribati
Capital: Tarawa
First, make sure you pronounce this 33-island nation correctly! Kiribati is pronounced keer-i-bas (i as in hit). The "ti" sounds like an "s" in the language. And where does this interesting name come from? It's the local pronunciation of Gilberts, because the islands used to be called the Gilbert Islands, named after their British discoverer. Try to see if you can make Gilbert sound like Kiribati. 

8. Palau
Capital: Koror
This tiny nation is barely twice the size of Washington, D.C. and due to its relative closeness to Guam and Japan, is one of the most known and visited islands in the entire Oceanic region.

9. Tuvalu
Capital: Funafuti
This country is made up of nine islands and several atolls, and its highest point is no more than 15 feet above sea level. Due to the country being so flat, it is estimated that it will be one of the first places to go when global warming and rising sea levels reach their full potential.

Photo Credit: Wikipedia
10. Vanuatu
Capital: Port-Vila
James Michener visited these islands, among others, in World War II. Vanuatu, in particular, inspired a novel of short stories that he would title South Pacific, becoming a great success in America. It would later become a Tony Award-winning musical in 1951.

11. Tonga
Capital: Nuku'alofa
Tonga is one of the last remaining monarchies left in the world, after its citizens successfully resisted all European attempts to make it a colony, which is really rare. However, in 1900 Tonga did have a treaty with Britain for protection. The present king is King Tupou VI. He has been making several reforms, however, to make Tonga a more democratic and modern state, including ceding most of his power to the Prime Minister.

12. Solomon Islands
Capital: Honiara
Like most of the countries on this list, Solomon Islands saw some pretty heavy fighting in World War II. The most populous island of Guadalcanal, for example, was the site of a very bloody battle. It lasted six months and more than 38,000 people on both sides died.

Now that you've read all these facts, interested in a quiz on the countries? No cheating! :)


Sources: Wikipedia, The Kingdom of Tonga, National Geographic, The World Factbook