Author: Christine Ro

Christine Ro is nervous about having an online presence, which she realizes makes her a dinosaur. If she were a dinosaur, she'd be a sauropod, as she's also a herbivore with strong hind legs. If you speak a different dialect, that's "AN herbivore with strong hind legs". Stuff she writes lives at

A Jarring Revelation

Poet, inventor, and businesswoman Amanda Theodosia Jones learned firsthand why 19th century America was a tough time and place to be a female entrepreneur, especially one with romantic and spiritual sensibilities. In her long and storied career, Jones made remarkable advances in food safety and other fields, collecting a dozen patents along the way. She relied on not just her ingenuity and diligence, but some influential and very unlikely friends.

The Democratic People’s Republic of Begonias

An iconic sight in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is the Kimjongilia. This hybrid begonia was bred by a Japanese botanist and presented to Supreme Leader Kim Jong-il in 1988. It soon became part of the diplomatic toolkit. The North Korean government has sent the flower to a number of countries as a sign of friendship, and the Kimjongilia won the gold medal at the 1991 International Flower Show in Czechoslovakia.

The Kimjongiliia is displayed domestically as well. Like the Kimsungilia, an orchid clone presented in 1965 by Indonesian president Sukarno, the Kimjongilia forms part of an “international friendship botanic garden” in Pyongyang’s Central Botanic Garden. This garden also includes greenhouses dedicated to the Kimjongilia and Kimsungilia. And, as presided over by a 232-member Funeral Committee, Kimjongilia flowers were prominently displayed around the corpse of Kim Jong-il during his 11-day mourning period.

The North Korean state takes this flower seriously. As reported by the state news agency KCNA, the Kimilsungia and Kimjongilia Research Centre created a chemical concoction to extend the blooming period of the Kimjongilia by up to 20 days. And the DPRK State Administration for Quality Management notes that the Kimjongilia “is a rare bright and crimson flower that represents the personality of the energetic great man as dozens of corrugated evenly-arranged petals form a big, clear and lovely flower supported by heart-shaped leaves”. It’s not all flowery talk, however. The State Administration for Quality Management sets standard specifications for the plant – for instance, the female flower should have exactly four or five petals. Growers who deviate from these requirements are subject to legal penalties.

Apparently plans are afoot to breed a Kimjongunia. But, as with much that stems from North Korea, information about the new flower is nebulous.

Australia’s Humped Pestilence

The introduction of non-native species can be a tricky business. The feral camels of Australia are a case in point. They were brought to the country in 1840 to ease exploration of the Outback, and the hardy animals soon proved useful in the construction of railway and telegraph lines.

From the beginning, however, camels and Australia made for a precarious pairing. During one of the first Australian expeditions to use the beasts—John Horrocks’ 1846 journey into the Outback—a camel was responsible for the expedition leader’s death. Horrocks was unloading a rifle while standing alongside a prone pack camel when the camel suddenly lurched, hooking part of its pack into the rifle’s action. The gun discharged, and the slug severed Horrocks’ middle finger, then entered through his left cheek and knocked out a row of upper teeth. Horrocks died within the month, but not before ordering the camel executed.

On a large scale, Australian camels started to create trouble in the 1930s, when automobiles rendered them increasingly obsolete. The thousands of no-longer-needed animals multiplied rapidly, given plenty of space and camels’ suitability for the dry climate. Their population approximately doubled every eight years, and by 2008 they numbered an estimated 600,000. Australia is now the only country with a substantial feral camel population.

The huge numbers of wild camels have become a major ecological and financial liability. They deplete vegetation and water sources, creating scarcity for other animals. The feral camels are particularly ravenous when searching for water, tearing up water spigots and toilet blocks in the process. They also destroy other types of infrastructure, from fences to windmills. Camels have even become a traffic hazard, both on highways and on airplane runways.

Efforts are underway to de-camelize the continent, a program that has met with some controversy. Researchers have started using “Judas camels” to thin the camel population, which involves placing a tracking device on a sociable camel, who then unwittingly leads the trackers to groups of feral camels. Riflemen then thin the herd from helicopters. Wild camel meat is exported to the Middle East to help offset the cost of the culling. Since 2008 camel populations have been reduced considerably.

Hasty Hostilities

Zanzibar, an island nation that is now part of Tanzania, has been a contested territory for centuries. Starting in the 15th century, interested parties from Portugal, Oman, Germany, and Britain vied for the right to settle in Zanzibar and to decide whether to continue or abolish its slave trade.

In 1890, Zanzibar was declared a protectorate of the British Empire. And three years later, the Britain-friendly sultan Hamad bin Thuwaini came to power. Sultan Hamad died unexpectedly on 25 August 1896; his young cousin, Khalid bin Bargash, was suspected of having poisoned him. Young Khalid thumbed his nose at the British by swiftly moving into the palace without their permission, and ignoring a warning from the British consul to cease and desist. Instead, Khalid mobilized nearly 3,000 soldiers and civilians in the palace square, as well as a variety of military equipment that the British had gifted to the previous sultan.

The British, in response, readied warships in the harbor and delivered ultimatums demanding that Khalid leave the palace. Khalid remained defiant.

At 9:00am on 27 August 1896, three British ships opened fire on the palace. By 9:02am Khalid had fled, and most of his weaponry had been destroyed. The open fire ended at around 9:40am. A new (British-approved) sultan was in place by the afternoon.

Unsurprisingly, given that the British commanded the most powerful navy in the world, the war was a lopsided one. While approximately 500 Zanzibaris were killed, only a single British sailor was wounded. As the Anglo-Zanzibar War lasted between 38 and 45 minutes in total, it remains the shortest war in history.

Of Earwax and Ethnicity

One way of determining a person’s likely ethnicity is looking inside their ears. Simply put, there are two kinds of earwax: dry and white, or wet and brownish. Genetic research shows that Caucasians tend to have the sticky type, while East Asians generally have the dry kind. This is due to a variant of the ABCC11 gene, which also affects the chemical that produces body odor. Koreans, Japanese, and others of East Asian descent typically have un-sticky earwax and un-smelly bodies due to the same gene.

No Country For Ye Olde Men

The year was 1721. The ship was called the Prince Royal, its destination the American colonies. And the cake—the cake was gingerbread.

The British crew shouldn’t have been surprised to find the metal file in the cake. Its stasher, James Dalton—a notorious thief and escape artist—had been shuttled involuntarily between Britain and America more times than a trans-Atlantic diplomat. Unluckily for Dalton, this particular mutiny fell apart as soon as the cake did. Luckily for Dalton, there would always be a next time. After all, as a convict who’d been sentenced to the punishment of “transportation” multiple times, Dalton had mutinied before.

Poor Execution

Jack Ketch was a man in need of a career change. As the official executioner during King Charles II’s 17th-century reign, Ketch handled a number of political executions. However, he lacked a knack for the job. He frequently required as many as five swings before successfully beheading a prisoner. His butchery of the politician William Russell was so messy and reviled that Ketch took it upon himself to write a pamphlet after the execution, apologizing for his poor performance and blaming it on Russell’s inability to hold still.

At Ketch’s most high-profile assignment, the execution of the rebel Duke of Monmouth, the duke mentioned Ketch’s earlier bungling of the Russell execution. This made Ketch nervous, and his three shaky axe strikes failed to complete the severing. Pleading, “I can’t do it,” Ketch attempted to flee the site, but the sheriffs forced him to return and finish the job. It took several more hacks with the axe and the assistance of a knife to successfully separate Monmouth’s head from his body.

Due to his notoriety, “Jack Ketch” became a generic term in the UK for executioners and Satan.

The Prince of Icebergs

In October 1977, the city of Ames, Iowa hosted the International Conference on Iceberg Utilization. The conference was sponsored by the Saudi prince Mohammed al Faisal, whose company was called Iceberg Transport International. Prince Faisal and other attendees had big ideas for making use of the massive blocks of ice, including towing bergs to the Arabian peninsula (estimated to cost a cool $100 million) or Southern California (only a $30 million job).

While the prince expected the iceberg hauling operation to be underway within three years, these plans never materialized. However, the dream has never disappeared. Work continues on finding cost-effective and logistically feasible ways of using icebergs to slake thirst in water-parched regions. One such project is being supported by Georges Mougin, an engineer who was part of Prince Faisal’s Iceberg Transport International team in the 1970s.

Into the Bewilderness

alphabetical An Christine in introduction is order: Ro. Welcome

Waterton capturing the cayman, by his friend Captain Edwin Jones
Waterton capturing the cayman, by his friend Captain Edwin Jones

Charles Waterton was born in Yorkshire, England in 1782, to an aristocratic Catholic family whose ancestors included members of several royal families. The life of an idle nobleman didn’t appeal to him, however. From a young age, he displayed a passion for studying and interacting with animals in a very hands-on way.

An inveterate tree-climber, Waterton was grateful for the wide array of bird species found on his family’s estate. He was so much of a birdbrain that teachers complained of his “vast proficiency in the art of finding birds’ nests” distracting him from his studies. Like his teachers, Waterton’s classmates noticed his fondness for being amongst animals. He was the one called upon when the boys wanted someone to tame an angry goose, or to ride a cow for their entertainment. He was even appointed rat catcher at his Jesuit boys’ school.

Waterton’s youthful interest in trapping the animals around him evolved into a specialist desire to understand less common animals. This being the Victorian era, and Waterton having the time and money to devote to his preoccupations, his obsessions prompted amusement in the readers of his prolific writings, rather than consternation. For instance, he once described a dissection of a vulture’s nose as “beautiful.” And he was an expert on how a variety of tropical animals, from the howler monkey to the toucan, tasted. The former, apparently, is not dissimilar to goat, while the latter should be boiled for best results.

This type of contradiction—being moved by animals, yet also scientifically dedicated to studying them by killing and preserving them in scientifically novel ways—would be a theme throughout Waterton’s life. The man clearly had complex feelings about his relationships with animals. Perhaps the most significant of these feelings was the desire to transcend the divisions within the animal kingdom: divisions between animals, but also ones separating himself and the creatures he loved.

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