Category Archives: Just Having Fun

Guo Nian Hao

Chinese New Year is here, along with a host of superstitions that will apparently dictate how the next twelve months will play out.

Cleaning clothes, using scissors and sweeping floors are some of the easier omens to sidestep, however parents might find it difficult to dodge crying children and – on the more extreme end of the scale – women might find it difficult to avoid leaving the house all day.

According to Chinese superstition, doing any of these today, February 16, will lead to bad luck for the entire coming year. However it isn’t all doom and gloom: 2018 is the Year of the Dog, an animal which symbolises luck.

One lucky dog 🙂

In the Chinese zodiac, the dog is a symbol of loyalty, responsibility, courage, sincerity, strength, trustworthiness, determination, perseverance, friendship, tenderheartedness, valiancy and heroism.

Dogs symbolise luck to the Chinese: if a stray dog approaches a house, it is said to show the fortune is coming to the family. The animal is incredibly loyal to its owner, whether or not the owner is wealthy. Plus, dogs bark to warn people if an intruder is nearby; centuries ago, the Chinese would predict good or bad luck according to the amount of times a dog barked.

The dog is seen often in Chinese mythology: Erlang, a popular supernatural stock character, has a dog in the novel Journey to the West. Over the course of the story, Erlang’s dog rescues him on several occasions, including by biting his master’s adversary Sun Wukong on the leg and attacking a nine-headed insect demon.

A dog is also integral to the legend of Panhu. The Chinese sovereign Di Ku’s dog Panhu killed an enemy army general in the tale, helping him win the war. The dog was then rewarded with marriage to the emperor’s daughter, whom he carried to the south of the country. Panhu has since been worshipped by the Southern Yao and She minorites – often referred to as King Pan – and is the reason the eating of dog meat is forbidden in their communities.

There are many superstitions surrounding Chinese New Year. These are to be avoided on the first day of the festival:

  • Medicine: Taking medicine on the first day of the lunar year means one will get ill for a whole year.
  • New Year’s breakfast: Porridge should not be eaten because it is considered that only poor people have porridge for breakfast – and people don’t want to start the year “poor”.
  • Laundry: People do not wash clothes on the first and second day because these two days are celebrated as the birthday of Shuishen (水神, the Water God).
  • Washing hair: Hair must not be washed on the first day of the lunar year. In the Chinese language, hair (发) has the same pronunciation and character as ‘fa’ in facai (发财), which means ’to become wealthy’. Therefore, it is seen as not a good thing to “wash one’s fortune away” at the beginning of the New Year.
  • Sharp objects: The use of knives and scissors is to be avoided as any accident is thought to lead to inauspicious things and the depletion of wealth.
  • Going out: A woman may not leave her house otherwise she will be plagued with bad luck for the entire coming year. A married daughter is not allowed to visit the house of her parents as this is believed to bring bad luck to the parents, causing economic hardship for the family.
  • The broom: If you sweep on this day then your wealth will be swept away too.
  • Crying children: The cry of a child is believed to bring bad luck to the family so parents do their best to keep children as happy as possible.
  • Theft: Having your pocket picked is believed to portend your whole wealth in the coming year being stolen.
  • Debt: Money should not be lent on New Year’s Day and all debts have to be paid by New Year’s Eve. If someone owes you money, do not go to their home to demand it. Anyone who does so will be unlucky all year.
  • An empty rice jar: A depleted receptacle may cause grave anxiety as the cessation of cooking during the New Year period is considered to be an ill omen.
  • Damaged clothes: Wearing threadbare garments can cause more bad luck for the year.
  • Killing things: Blood is considered an ill omen, which will cause misfortunes such as a knife wound or a bloody disaster.
  • Monochrome fashion: White or black clothes are barred as these two colours are traditionally associated with mourning.
  • Giving of certain gifts: Clocks, scissors, and pears all have a bad meaning in Chinese culture.

Decorations are typically red because in the Chinese culture, the color can bring happiness, wealth and prosperity by warding off evil spirits and bad luck. The tradition may have come from the story of the Nian. This fierce and cruel creature eats livestock and children, but it is scared of the color red, along with fire and noise. People celebrate with red decorations and fireworks to drive away the Nian.

Sangria Night 🍒

Your glass looks different.

Hmm, do you think so?

Sangria’s origins probably date back to the Middle Ages, during a time when water was unhealthy to drink and drinking fermented beverages carried a much lower risk of causing illness. During this time, people would mix wine, which was much lighter and less potent than what we are used to today, with spices such as cinnamon.

Sangria is the Spanish term for a mix of fruit and wine that became popular in Europe in the subsequent centuries, and the drink emerged on the American culinary radar when it was served in New York at the Pavillion of Spain during the 1964 World’s Fair.

Pavillion of Spain
New York World’s Fair 1964
Pavillion of Spain
New York World’s Fair 1964

The word sangria is much more serious than the drink itself: it comes from the Latin word for blood, thanks to the original sangria’s reddish hue, a result of the red wine first used to make it. Since then, various European countries and hundreds of restaurants have created their own variations on the sangria theme. Spain alone offers quite a few traditional options based on region, with sparkling recipes coming from the areas that produce Cava, for example.

We have fun making our own version of cherry sangria 🍒

And enjoying it with a new cherry tart 🍒

¡Salud! Noroc! Salut! Cheers!

Orion Tales

We saw Orion in the night sky at the Pinnacles. He was standing on his head!

Photo by David Malin
It’s story time 🙂

Professor Neville H. Fletcher (1930-2017) once said: “In astronomy circles, it is often remarked that God, in creating the universe, perversely located all the most interesting regions of our galaxy in the Southern Hemisphere, but all the astronomers in the north.” As a result, it can be more difficult to pick out in the Southern Hemisphere the shapes for which the constellations were originally named.

Orion, the hunter, is not proudly standing on his feet, but rather doing a cart-wheel 🙂

Orion, one of the 48 Greek constellations listed by Ptolemy in the Almagest, is the most splendid of constellations, befitting a character who was in legend the tallest and most handsome of men. His right shoulder and left foot are marked by the brilliant stars Betelgeuse and Rigel, with a distinctive line of three stars forming his belt. “No other constellation more accurately represents the figure of a man”, said Germanicus Caesar.

Manilius called it ‘golden Orion’ and ‘the mightiest of constellations’, and exaggerated its brilliance by saying that, when Orion rises, ‘night feigns the brightness of day and folds its dusky wings’. Manilius described Orion as “stretching his arms over a vast expanse of sky and rising to the stars with no less huge a stride”. In fact, Orion is not an exceptionally large constellation, ranking only 26th in size, but the brilliance of its stars gives it the illusion of being much larger.

Orion is also one of the most ancient constellations, being among the few star groups known to the earliest Greek writers such as Homer and Hesiod. Even in the space age, Orion remains one of the few star patterns that non-astronomers can recognize.

Orion raises his club and shield against the charging Taurus as illustrated on Chart XII in the Uranographia of Johann Bode (1801). Orion’s right shoulder is marked by the bright star Betelgeuse, and his left foot by Rigel. A line of three stars forms his belt

In the sky, Orion is depicted facing the snorting charge of neighbouring Taurus, yet the myth of Orion makes no reference to such a combat. However, the constellation originated with the Sumerians, who saw in it their great hero Gilgamesh fighting the Bull of Heaven. The Sumerian name for Orion was URU AN-NA, meaning light of heaven. Taurus was GUD AN-NA, bull of heaven.

Gilgamesh was the Sumerian equivalent of Heracles, which brings us to another puzzle. Being the greatest hero of Greek mythology, Heracles deserves a magnificent constellation such as this one, but in fact is consigned to a much more obscure area of sky. Orion might be Heracles in another guise, for one of the labours of Heracles was to catch the Cretan bull, which would fit the Orion – Taurus conflict in the sky. Ptolemy described him with club and lion’s pelt, both familiar attributes of Heracles, and he is shown this way on old star maps. Despite these parallels, no mythologist hints at a connection between this constellation and Heracles.

According to myth, Orion was the son of Poseidon, the sea-god, and Euryale, daughter of King Minos of Crete. Poseidon gave Orion the power to walk on water. Homer in the Odyssey describes Orion as a giant hunter, armed with an unbreakable club of solid bronze. In the sky, the hunter’s dogs (the constellations Canis Major and Canis Minor) follow at his heels, in pursuit of the hare (the constellation Lepus).

On the island of Chios, Orion wooed Merope, daughter of King Oenopion, apparently without much success, for one night while fortified with wine he tried to ravish her. In punishment, Oenopion put out Orion’s eyes and banished him from the island. Orion headed north to the island of Lemnos where Hephaestus had his forge. Hephaestus took pity on the blind Orion and offered one of his assistants, Cedalion, to act as his eyes. Hoisting the youth on his shoulders, Orion headed east towards the sunrise, which an oracle had told him would restore his sight. As the Sun’s healing rays fell on his sightless eyes at dawn, Orion’s vision was miraculously restored.

Orion is linked in a stellar myth with the Pleiades star cluster in Taurus. The Pleiades were seven sisters, daughters of Atlas and Pleione. As the story is usually told, Orion fell in love with the Pleiades and pursued them with amorous intent. But according to Hyginus, it was actually their mother Pleione he was after. Zeus snatched the group up and placed them among the stars, where Orion still pursues them across the sky each night.

Stories of the death of Orion are numerous and conflicting. Astronomical mythographers such as Aratus, Eratosthenes and Hyginus were agreed that a scorpion was involved. In one version, told by Eratosthenes and Hyginus, Orion boasted that he was the greatest of hunters. He declared to Artemis, the goddess of hunting, and Leto, her mother, that he could kill any beast on Earth. The Earth shuddered indignantly and from a crack in the ground emerged a scorpion which stung the presumptuous giant to death.

Orion is one of several constellations in which the star labelled Alpha is not the brightest. The brightest star in Orion is actually Beta Orionis, called Rigel from the Arabic rijl meaning ‘foot’, from Ptolemy’s description of it as ‘the bright star in the left foot’. Ptolemy also said it was shared with the river Eridanus, and some old charts depict it in this dual role.

Astronomy picture of the day – 15 Jan 2018
Rigel and the Witch Head Nebula
Image Credit & Copyright: Mario Cogo (Galax Lux)

Rigel is a brilliant blue-white supergiant, one of the rarest breeds in our galaxy. With their enormous brilliance — up to 100,000 times as bright as the sun — blue-white supergiants remain conspicuous over great distances. Rigel is one of the most intrinsically luminous of all stars and one of the hottest, apparently just reaching the prime of its life in the time span of a star and literally “burning the candle at both ends”. It has been computed that Rigel’s luminosity is something like 57,000 times that of the sun. The star is about 800 light-years away.

The star is only 10 million years old, compared to the Sun’s 4.5 billion, and due to its measured size and brightness it is expected to end in a supernova one day. It also has two known companions, Rigel B and Rigel C.

In contrast, red supergiants like Betelgeuse (Alpha Orionis) are gigantic bloated globes of cooler gas. If such a star were to replace the sun in the solar system, it might extend beyond Mars’ orbit. It is located about 500 light-years away, but does not shine with a steady light. Bright red Betelgeuse is near the end of its career. When the core can no longer support the star’s vast weight, it will collapse, triggering a cataclysmic supernova explosion. Betelgeuse is in its final stage and could explode in only a few million years.

Stars produce their energy by fusing hydrogen into helium deep within their cores. When a star accumulates sufficient helium in its core, its energy output increases significantly, and it swells into a red giant or supergiant, like Betelgeuse. This is what Rigel will become in a few million years.

The red supergiant star Betelgeuse is seen here in a view from the Herschel Space Observatory
Image credit: ESA/NASA

Betelgeuse is a ‘pulsating’ star, expanding and contracting spasmodically with a diameter that varies from 550 to 920 times that of the sun, but so irregular are these pulsations that no one can predict exactly when it will expand or contract. In trying to describe Betelgeuse many years ago, Henry Neely, a lecturer at New York’s Hayden Planetarium, once noted that it is “like an old man with his strength almost entirely spent, panting in the asthmatic decrepitude of old age”.

Betelgeuse is one of the most famous yet misunderstood star names. It comes from the Arabic yad al-jauza, often wrongly translated as ‘armpit of the central one’. In fact, it means ‘hand of al-jauza’. But who (or what) was al-jauza? It was the name given by the Arabs to the constellation figure that they saw in this area, seemingly a female figure encompassing the stars of both Orion and Gemini. The word al-jauza apparently comes from the Arabic jwz meaning ‘middle’, so the best translation that modern commentators can offer is that al-jauza means something like ‘the female one of the middle’. The reference to the ‘middle’ may be to do with the fact that the constellation lies astride the celestial equator. Ptolemy described it in the Almagest as ‘the bright, reddish star on the right shoulder’.

The Greeks did not give a name to either Betelgeuse or Rigel, surprisingly for such prominent stars, which is why we know them by their Arabic titles.

The left shoulder of Orion is marked by Gamma Orionis, known as Bellatrix, a Latin name meaning ‘the female warrior’. The star at the hunter’s right knee, Kappa Orionis, is called Saiph. This name comes from the Arabic for ‘sword’, and is clearly misplaced. The three stars of the belt – Zeta, Epsilon, and Delta Orionis – are called Alnitak, Alnilam and Mintaka. The names Alnitak and Mintaka both come from the Arabic word meaning ‘the belt’ or ‘girdle’. Alnilam comes from the Arabic meaning ‘the string of pearls’, another reference to the belt of Orion.

Below the belt lies a hazy patch marking the giant’s sword or hunting knife. This is the location of the Orion Nebula, one of the most-photographed objects in the sky, a mass of gas from which a cluster of stars is being born. The gas of the Nebula shines by the light of the hottest stars that have already formed within; it is visible to the naked eye on clear nights.

Image of Orion Nebula captured by Hubble Space Telescope, 11 Jan 2006
Image credit: NASA, ESA

In one of the most detailed astronomical images ever produced, NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope captured an unprecedented look at the Orion Nebula. This turbulent star formation region is one of astronomy’s most dramatic and photogenic celestial objects. More than 3,000 stars of various sizes appear in this image. Some of them have never been seen in visible light. These stars reside in a dramatic dust-and-gas landscape of plateaus, mountains, and valleys that are reminiscent of the Grand Canyon. The Orion Nebula is a picture book of star formation, from the massive, young stars that are shaping the nebula to the pillars of dense gas that may be the homes of budding stars.

These beary sized cakes are very yummy. I’ll taste them some more 🙂