Where is the “Orient”?

The Orient refers to places east of Europe, but where exactly depends on when you are asking.

Pinning down the location of the Orient depends on where you are and when you are. The word “orient” comes from the Latin for “east” so it generally means “the east” but more specifically it has meant “east of Europe.”

As Europeans traveled further abroad, the lands they considered “the East” aka “the Orient” was progressively pushed further east. For the Ancient Romans the Orient started as basically anything east of modern day Italy. The Eastern Mediterranean Levant area, Egypt, even along North Africa (which isn’t even east, it’s south of Europe) all became part of the “Orient.” These areas eventually became the “Near East” as the Orient came to include what is now the “Middle East” because eventually Europeans were interacting with people in the “Far East” coasts of Asia. All of these areas were at one point included in what was considered the “Orient.”

Because of this non-specific generalized term, things that are “oriental” can be from a pretty wide variety of cultures. While the Orient Express train line only went as far east as Istanbul, Oriental Medicine generally refers to medicine from much further away in East Asia. Oriental spices can range from the Middle East to the Far East of Asia, but Oriental rugs have an even wider range across two continents from Morocco to the Pacific coast of Asia.


As Europeans traveled to these “new” lands, western artists seized the opportunity to create exotic works of art based on these little know worlds. Orientalism was a movement especially present throughout the 19th century in music, literature, and the visual arts where these distant cultures were represented to varying degrees of authenticity. At best it was an opportunity for artists to create something exotic and new, but at worst it was an exploitative way to get attention. Orientalism could be an excuse to paint fairly salacious scenes of Muslim harems or Turkish baths with little accuracy.

Inspection of New Arrivals by Giulio Rosati who specialized in orientalist paintings

Like defining exactly where the Orient was, orientalized art ranges from North African motifs, to Turkish, to East Asian and everything in-between. Egyptian orientalism was kickstarted by Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt, a fascination which also made its way to the United States (which is why the Washington Monument is, essentially, a massive Egyptian obelisk).

Bonaparte Before the Sphinx by Jean-Léon Gérôme

As European powers pushed further eastward, such as the forced opening of Japan in 1858, orientalism turned more towards East Asian cultures. One example is the Gilbert & Sullivan opera The Mikado which was set in Japan but had no real interest in accuracy to Japanese culture. Gilbert & Sullivan were looking to capitalize on England’s latest fad for all things Japanese.

Loosely borrowing from Japanese culture, The Mikado by Gilbert & Sullivan

Problems with the Orient

The lack of specificity is just one of the problems with the term “oriental”. Oriental is also European-centric at the exclusion of other cultures. Further, as the term “oriental” came to include not just lands & cultures but also the people of those cultures, the word developed a long racist history of being used in anti-Asian propaganda.

As such the term has mostly fallen out of favor. The best advice is to be specific to where/what/who you are talking about.

Scam Email Spelling “Mistakes”

The spelling mistakes in email scams are intentional.

Upon receiving a scam email with spelling mistakes your first instinct may be to think “Idiots, they can’t even spell correctly.” The truth however is that those spelling mistakes are most likely intentional as a way to remove false positives. The mistakes are part of the scam.

In order for a scam to be profitable, the scammer wants to maximize their time by only interacting with people who are the most likely to pay them. To interact with someone who will never commit & pay is a waste of time. So the spelling “mistakes” are there to filter out people who are clever enough to see the mistakes and realize it’s a scam. They are a filter to find only the most gullible people, perfect for scamming.

Added bonus: The Nigerian Prince email scam is a lot older than you may think. While it is an email scam now, this “Advance-Fee Scam” operates much in the same way as the “Spanish prisoner scam” which goes back to at least 1898.

the 1992 Lithuanian Basketball team & the Grateful Dead

The 1992 Lithuanian mens basketball team had tie-dyed uniforms because they were financially supported by the Grateful Dead.

In 1990 Lithuania gained independence from the Soviet Union after 50 years of communist occupation. As a new country they had nationwide economic problems and funding their Olympic team was low on the priority list. So to try and raise funds for the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, Lithuanian basketball star Šarūnas Marčiulionis (who also played for the Golden State Warriors and eventually made the NBA hall of fame) went on a campaign to get sponsors & donors wherever he could. Enter the Grateful Dead.

An article in the San Francisco Chronicle about Marčiulionis and the Lithuanian team was brought to the attention of San Francisco based Grateful Dead who had Marčiulionis come to meet them at their rehearsal space. As drummer Mickey Hart said, “We’re always for the underdog, and this wasn’t just a basketball team. This was a struggle for life, liberty and freedom.” They cut Marčiulionis a check for $5,000 and supplied the team with tie-dyed uniforms in the colors of the Lithuanian flag with a slam-dunking skeleton on the front. When the Lithuanian team made it to Barcelona their tie-dye uniforms were an international sensation. While their actual game uniforms were fairly traditional, they did take the podium to receive their bronze medals (after a symbolic 82-78 victory over their former Soviet team) wearing their Grateful Dead tie-die.

An added bonus: Through the Grateful Dead’s charitable organization, the Rex Foundation, they sold Lithuanian tie-dye shirts to the public, with proceeds going to the Lithuanian basketball team and Lithuanian children’s charities, raising over $450,000. You can still buy a copy from the artist who designed them.

the Lithuanian Basketball team receiving their bronze medals wearing their tie-dye uniforms
the tie-dye Greg Speirs designed shirt, which you can buy


In 1928 Henry Ford built a town in the Amazon Rainforest to try and cut out the middle-man and produce his own rubber. It was a failure.

During the rising success of his automotive company, Henry Ford (famed industrialist, Nazi sympathizer, and know anti-semite who believe that Jews were controlling the banks and that Jazz was a Jewish conspiracy) realized that he had a problem with rubber. The source of the rubber used in Ford automobiles (for tires, hoses, belts, etc) was controlled by European colonial plantations in Asia. He was dependent on them and was at their mercy.

So in 1928 Ford launched a plan to produce his own rubber, a plan that would allow him to cut out the middle-man. Ford purchased 2.5 million acres of Amazon Rainforest from the Brazilian government to grow rubber trees. To cultivate and process this rubber he created a prefabricated town for 10,000 workers, and he called it Fordlândia.


The town was a slice of Michigan in the middle of the Amazon. It had American style homes, white picket fences, hospitals, schools, a golf course, tennis courts, a movie theater, swimming pools, etc. Stray dogs were caught and puddles were drained to reduce the possibility of malaria carrying mosquitos. The town was also a cultural project where employees would have to follow Henry Ford’s ideas of healthy living. There was no alcohol, almost no women, they had to eat oatmeal and canned peaches, and employees were encouraged to participate in poetry readings, square dancing, and gardening.

Eventually Fordlândia failed. The Brazilian workers grew tired of following Ford’s rules for how to conduct their lives during their off-hours. They revolted more than once and took trips to the “Island of Innocence” which was a bar / brothel just upriver from town. Some of the Ford managerial employees went mad in the jungle, as was the case with Mr. Johansen who bought perfume from a trading post upriver and started chasing farm animals shouting “Mr. Ford has lots of money; you might as well smell good too.”

As for the rubber trees, Ford ignored agricultural experts and had the trees planted too close together in poor rocky soil. They developed blight, they became a salad bar for the local insect population, and failed to ever really produce rubber. Fordlândia was abandoned in 1934 and the project moved to new land 25 miles downstream, but with the invention of synthetic rubber the entire project was shut down for good in 1945. Over 17 years Ford spent $25 million on Fordlândia, or around $379 million in 2019 dollars. The land was sold back to the Brazilian government for just $244,200. Fordlândia was an expensive commercial & social failure. Henry Ford never visited Fordlândia.

Over the years the Brazilian government tried to use the town but eventually abandoned it. By the early 2000s less than 100 people lived there but the space has seen a renewal. Today, while much of it is in ruins, the habitable areas are home to around 3,000 Brazilians.

Tippi Hedren’s Nails

Tippi Hedren helped Vietnamese immigrants become manicurists, who eventually dominated the American nail salon industry

Tippi Hedren began her career as a model and moved into acting. Her big break was being discovered by Alfred Hitchcock and was cast as the lead of 1963’s The Birds. The two worked together again when she starred as the titular Marnie in 1964. While Hitchcock was a great director he was not a great person (particularly to Hedren) and they never worked together again. His bitterness over being rejected by her led him to use his movie studio clout to prevent her from working on other films for years, from which her career never really recovered.

Fast-forward several years and Hedren is working on smaller movies but has also more time for her political activism. She became an animal rights activist, famously living with a lion named Neil, and eventually started the Shambala Preserve as an animal sanctuary for a variety of big cats. Shambala is also where Michael Jackson’s two tigers (Sabu & Thriller) ended up. Hedren also became involved with the charity Food for the Hungry, which gets us to her nails.

Tippi Hedren and her pet lion Neil

Vietnamese Manicurists

After the Fall of Saigon in 1975, with the charity Food for the Hungry, Hedren volunteered on a rented Australian battleship in the South China Seas rescuing Vietnamese refugees. Later she went to Sacramento to volunteer at Camp Hope, a Vietnamese refugee camp. As she was trying to help the women of the camp start new lives in the United States as seamstresses or typists, she noticed that what the women were really interested in were her nails and she hit upon an idea.

Hedren had her manicurist Dusty Butera flown up to Sacramento to begin teaching twenty Vietnamese women how to be manicurists. These lessons continued for a few months and eventually those women enrolled in the local Citrus Heights Beauty School. Those twenty women would go on to teach other Vietnamese women, and those women taught other women, and so on.

In 2015 it was estimated that 51% of all manicurists in America were of Vietnamese descent. In California it’s estimated to be almost 80%. This Vietnamese domination of the American nail salon market is directly tied back to Tippi Hedren’s efforts to help immigrants start new lives. In 2019 Tippi Hedren was honored at the Vietnamese American Nail Appreciation Gala in recognition of her activism that started an industry.


From a mythical origin story, to common kitchen spice, cinnamon has a long strange history.

To start, cinnamon is a spice (which means it’s not leaves, which is what herbs are). It comes from the bark of trees in the Cinnamomum family. It’s been used for thousands of years but where it grew was intentionally shrouded in mystery for much of that time. During the spice trade cinnamon was harvested in southern Asia, brought to the Middle East along the Maritime Silk Road, and then resold by spice merchants around the Mediterranean and onward. To maintain control over the Western market, the Asian origins of cinnamon were kept secret by its Arabian merchants.

This cinnamon subterfuge begins with an incredible origin story. Westerners were told that there was a species of Arabian bird called the Cinnamologus (ie. “cinnamon birds”) which made their nests with pieces of cinnamon that they collected from an unknown land. These nests were either high on cliff faces or at the tops of very tall trees depending on who was telling the story. The key was that the nests were inaccessible. So the cinnamon was harvested by either leaving heavy pieces of meat out for the birds, who would carry the meat back to their nests but the weight would topple the nest to the ground, or the nests were shot with projectiles which would do about the same thing.

Medieval manuscript depictions of the harvesting of cinnamon

This exotic & daring method of harvesting cinnamon only made it more desirable, much more so than if people found out you just had to peel the bark off of a tree and let it dry. Not everyone believed these stories, but either way the market supply was cornered by Arabian merchants and so cinnamon remained an expensive spice & Western status symbol for hundreds of years.

Two kinds of cinnamon

Today southern Asia still produces most of the world’s cinnamon. There are several kinds but the two you will find the most are Cassia Cinnamon (aka Chinese Cinnamon) and Ceylon Cinnamon (aka “True” Cinnamon). Cassia Cinnamon originates in China but is now grown all around southeast Asia. It has a bold flavor and is the version of cinnamon most commonly found in the United States. Ceylon Cinnamon comes almost exclusively from Sri Lanka (Ceylon being the old name for Sri Lanka). It has a subtler taste but in the culinary world it is considered the superior cinnamon (hence, “True” Cinnamon). One other difference is that Cassia Cinnamon contains higher concentrations of the chemical compound coumarin, which in large amounts can cause liver and kidney damage.

In general, other than just tasting nice, cinnamon has a variety of potential health benefits and it’s proven to be antimicrobial. Cinnamon can kill E. coli along with other harmful bacteria and as such was used for thousands of years to preserve meat (including during the embalming process of Egyptian mummies, which is just preserving meat of a different kind).

Baseball Organs

The organ was a part of early movie theater entertainment and then moved over to entertain baseball fans

Hot dogs, the seventh inning stretch, and the organ are all a part of the summertime ritual of baseball. Organs became a part of baseball game entertainment because, in the early 20th century, organs were played in theaters to provide music for silent films. Since they were associated with entertainment, baseball stadiums took the next step and incorporated the organ into their games. On April 26, 1941, Chicago’s Wrigley Field became the first baseball stadium to feature an organ (and they still feature a live organ, not a digital recording).

A feminist baseball anthem

Probably the most well known baseball song performed on the organ is Take Me Out to the Ball Game. Most teams feature the song (usually just the chorus) during the 7th inning stretch. The song was written in 1908 by Tin Pan Alley songwriters Jack Norworth & Albert Von Tilzer, neither of whom had ever been to a baseball game. The chorus speaks to the love of the game, but it’s the two verses that bookend the chorus that are groundbreaking.

The song is about a woman named Katie Casey whose young man asks if she wants to see a show, but as a sports fan she would rather go to a baseball game. She’s “baseball mad,” knows the players names, she argues with the umpire from the stands, she leads a chant to raise the home team’s spirits, etc – she does all of this as a woman in 1908. The character of Katie Casey was based on outspoken suffragist Trixie Friganza, a vaudeville star who also in a relationship with Norworth at the time. With Take Me Out to the Ball Game the early 20th century suffragist spirit of confidence & equality, typically associated with politics, was brought into the arena of sports (… which was also traditionally just for men). So while most people know the song’s chorus as an ode to baseball, the full song’s feminist message makes it more important than just a sports song.

An added bonus: in the Wrigley Field tradition of special guests leading the crowd in the 7th inning stretch, please enjoy Cookie Monster singing Take Me Out to the Ball Game.

Googie Architecture

1950s American suburban sprawl created an eye-catching architectural movement.

The American post-war economy of the 1940s boomed. With this increasing wave of affluence many Americans joined the middle class and subsequently moved to the suburbs. If you were living in the suburbs then you had to drive everywhere and as you flew down the road in your new car business owners knew they had to stand-out to be noticed. Enter, Googie Architecture.

If you threw some rocket ships, neon lights, trapezoids, and boomerangs into a 1950s blender, you’d get Googie Architecture. Googie is mid-century modern but with a lot of flair. The name comes from a now demolished Hollywood coffee shop called Googies. In 1949 famed architect John Lautner designed the Googies shop with striated lines, odd angles, and in big neon letters “GOOGIES” with eyes in the O’s. Soon other businesses created their own energetic designs, and from the late 1940s through the 1960s it was an architectural arms race for customers’ attention & dollars.

The Theme Building at Los Angeles International Airport

Today many Googie buildings are gone, replaced as design trends have changed. The Googie style McDonalds restaurants of the ‘50s with giant golden arches & cantilevered roofs, were replaced by the dull rectangular beige shingle-roofed McDonalds of the ‘70s (which were also replaced).

Still, some excellent Googie buildings live on. The Seattle Space Needle, the Theme Building at LAX, the “Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas Nevada” sign, and more still stand as testaments to a mid-century space-age era where function followed form.

An added bonus: Wildwood, New Jersey is full of Googie architecture, but there it’s referred to as Doo-Wop architecture. Also with the return of American soldiers from the Pacific, 1950s America produced another kitschy architectural style known as Tiki which celebrated an exaggerated/fanciful version of South Seas Polynesian culture.

In Wildwood, NJ, Googie is called Doo-Wop architecture

Lobster Immortality

Lobsters are not immortal, but are still pretty special

To point out that lobsters aren’t immortal may seem unnecessary unless you’ve previously seen internet buzz stories that lobsters might be able to live forever. Different species of lobsters have different lifespans but male European lobsters typically live around 31 years and females live around 54 years. This is far from forever. Aside from being killed by fishing, how do lobsters die?

One of the remarkable things about lobsters is that, unlike humans and most other animals, lobsters continue to get bigger as they get older. Humans get to an adult size and stop getting taller, but for lobsters there is no upper limit on how large they can grow to be. Another remarkable thing about lobsters is that they don’t show many signs of aging like we do. They don’t get weak, or slow down, or stop reproducing as they get older. Part of this longevity is how their cells divide. Unlike humans, lobsters continue to produce an enzyme called telomerase which helps repair damaged chromosomes during cell division. Having undamaged chromosomes allows lobsters to avoid the effects of old age and to keep living normal lives … until they don’t.


Lobsters are invertebrates with exoskeletons. In order for a lobster to get larger as it ages it has to shed its current exoskeleton and grow a larger new one. It basically runs out of room in its shell and needs to start a new roomier one. Therein lies the problem. While there may be no physical upper limit as to how large a lobster can get, every moulting takes more energy than the time before and eventually a lobster just doesn’t have the energy to shed its exoskeleton. 10-15% of lobsters die during the moulting process because they run out of energy. For those older lobsters who just stop moulting, they begin to accumulate damage to their shells and eventually die.

An added bonus: Another question the internet seems to ask is if lobsters feel pain. Yes they do, and being boiled alive is not enjoyable for lobsters (it’s illegal to boil a lobster alive in New Zealand, Switzerland, and parts of Italy).

To end on a high note, while most lobsters are typically dark bluish greens and greenish browns, genetic mutations can produce some really spectacular looking lobsters. Similar to most animals, albinos are very rare (1 in 100 million). Unlike most other animals though, lobsters have another extremely rare coloration (1 in 100 million) where the lobster is pastel blues & subtle pinks called “cotton candy”.


Lightning Bugs

Lightning bugs glow for a variety of reasons through a chemical reaction

Lightning bugs, fireflies, glowworms, or whatever else you may call them based on where you live, are beetles (not bugs) known for their summertime bioluminescent light shows. There is a great deal of diversity among lightning bug species. Most are nocturnal (but not all), most can create bioluminescent light (but not all). In some species both the males & females can glow (but in others only one or the other can glow). They also produce different colors (light green, yellow green, red), depending on the species.

Light show

Lightning bugs have a special organ to produce light, which happens when luciferin (a chemical compound) and luciferase (an enzyme) mix. Both luciferin & luciferase are named after Lucifer, which is the Latin name for the planet Venus meaning “light bringer”, because Venus can appear just before dawn in the night sky. Only later did Lucifer also come to mean Satan.

Why lightning bugs glow varies by species as well as age. In larvae they can glow as a warning to predators telling them “I don’t taste good, don’t eat me.” In adults it’s primarily for mating purposes. Adult males puts on a light show to attract females. Females reciprocate with a glow of their own.

It’s worth noting that the females of the Photuris genus of lightning bugs are known as the “femme fatale lightning bugs” because they imitate the light pattern of other species to attract & then eat the males. Of this genus, the species Photuris pensylvanica is the state insect of Pennsylvania.