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Travelling to Shangri La

Travelling to Shangri La

This is the second article in a series of unconventional destinations in China that we have prepared for you at Basecamp.

Map of China for your reference

Map of China for your reference

Shangri-La

In 1939, British writer James Hilton published the book “Lost Horizon”, telling of a paradise that is cut off from the rest of the world, located on the Tibetan plain. His novel was an instant success and “Shangri-La” became a household name, a fascinating place that captured the imagination of dreamers and adventurers alike. The Chinese government thought to take advantage of the popularity of the book, and had a town – previously known as Zhongdian -- that is a geographic fit with the imaginary utopia renamed Shangri-La.

Today, Shangri-La retains much of its quaint charm. As a city located in the north of Yun Nan and bordering Tibet, the people living here are Tibetans and they continue their way of life even now, just as they had for the last hundred years. They are a peaceable, friendly, honest bunch, possibly because of their religion – an overwhelming majority practice Tibetan Buddhism (think Dalai Lama and living buddhas). When you greet them, simply say “tah-shi-de-leh” (good luck).

There are some aspects of their culture that might give you a culture shock. Whether you can get past the initial shock and learn to appreciate the cultural difference is up to you. All of them hold on to the practice of sky burial – a procedure that involves defleshing the dead and grinding the bones, after which the meat and bone pieces are placed at a sky burial site for the birds to eat. To us, this may seem unacceptably gruesome, but to the Tibetans living in Shangri-La, this is how they honour their dead – by allowing their spirits to ascend into the heavens together with the birds.

Also, polygamy is still practiced. A man may take several wives. But wait, before you scream that it is the usual patriarchal world order at work, know this: a woman can also have several husbands. This practice is known as polyandry and is very rare nowadays.

Everywhere you go, you will see black dots on green plains. On closer inspection, you will discover that the little black dots are yaks (a.k.a. mao niu, “hairy cows”, in Chinese). They are a valuable asset to any Tibetan family as they provide free labour, milk and meat. However, do note that while yaks generally have a gentle temperament, it would still be foolish to chase after them like I did (I only knew afterwards that yaks can kill when enraged). Before you leave, don’t forget to have yak steamboat!

Things to do

  1. Napahai: Go horse-riding and watch yaks from afar
     
  2. Sumtsaling Monastery: Follow the tour guide and learn about sky burials and Tibetan Buddhism. To understand, a good grasp of Chinese is required.
     
  3. Potatso National Park: It is a beautiful place nearly half the size of Singapore with well conserved biodiversity.
     
  4. Dukezong Ancient Town: Eat yak steamboat here! Shop for souvenir; scarves, Chinese medicine and yak jerky are recommended. Dress up in traditional Tibetan garments and take pictures!
     
  5. Guishan Park: Spin the golden Tibetan turning wheel. Legend has it that if you can turn the wheel clockwise 3 times, good luck will come to you.
     
  6. Tiger Leaping Gorge: One of the deepest river canyons in the world. What can I say? Photos.

Caution: the average altitude stands at 3,160 metres above sea level. This makes you prone to altitude sickness. Personally, I puked and was immobilised in my hotel bed on the first day. Tips to alleviate altitude sickness (which I wish I had heed) include eating altitude sickness medicine days in advance, eating moderately upon reaching Shangri-La and not bathing on the first day. 

The Creator of the Sandwich is not who we think it is

The Creator of the Sandwich is not who we think it is

I remember as a kid, my mother would make a sandwich and wrap it in saran wrap for me to pack to primary school as lunch. It would always be either one of two recipes - Ham & Cheese, or Egg Mayo. As I grew older, this nostalgic food brought about my love affair with Subway sandwiches and I make it a sort of tradition to source for interesting deli sandwiches whenever I travel overseas too.

The sandwich might be the perfect food: Easy to pack, open to anything a creative mind would like to stack it with, and it can be as simple or as elaborate as your mood allows. 

Or as elaborate as your hunger allows

Or as elaborate as your hunger allows

Ever wondered who invented the sandwich? I did. And I thought I knew the answer. But turned out, I was wrong!

The humble origin story

The sandwich as we know it was popularized in England in 1762. The popular story goes that John Montagu, the 4th Earl of Sandwich, was a notorious gambler who so hated to leave the card table to eat that he instructed a servant to bring him some meat and bread. He then stacked the meat together between two pieces of bread to form an easy-to-eat meal, all without disrupting his beloved gambling sessions. 

The Earl enjoyed his meat and bread so much that he ate it constantly, and others in London's society circles soon started eating it too. And the concoction took on the Earl's name as The Sandwich.

Hence, the sandwich was born.

Or did it?

The great sandwich origin story may not have much truth to it after all. The story was first recorded in the early 1770s by a French writer named Pierre-Jean Grosley. The incident supposedly happened while Grosley was on a tour of London and he wrote it in his book 'Lourdes' (published in English as 'Tour to London').

But something smelt fishy. It was the idea that the Earl of Sandwich was a notorious gambler who would be up all night playing cards and not even stopping to have a meal that rang hollow. Historians pointed to the fact that the Earl was acting as a cabinet minister at the time - his duties would have left him little chance for all-night gambling sprees.

To crack another hole in that story, the Earl was also in the middle of revamping the entire British Naval Administration during that year. It was the type of job that would require a good night's sleep to be achieved.

montagu.jpg

Another slightly more embarrassing piece of evidence came from biographers who stated that the Earl couldn't have had a gambling habit as he did not have much money to gamble with in the first place, as he was one of the lower class members of British upper class royalty in that time. 

So, who should we credit the sandwich to?

While the Earl of Sandwich is credited with giving the sandwich its name, the first description of what we actually known as a sandwich came 2,000 years ago.

The Jewish Rabbi Hillel the Elder was born in the first century BC in what was then known as Babylonia. He later traveled to Jerusalem to devote himself to the studying of the Torah, and at a time when Jewish law was still hotly debated, it was his interpretations of the Jewish text that became the most popular among believers then.

His work on a verse in the book of Exodus could be said to have been the birth of the sandwich. Exodus 12:8 states, “Eat the meat on this night, roasted over fire. With matzah and bitter herbs you shall eat it.” This verse was describing a traditional Passover meal made from placing the meat of a lamb, mixed nuts and herbs between two pieces of unleavened bread, and shared among family and friends.

At the time, this was called a korech, which comes from the Hebrew word meaning “to wrap.” While it’s not recorded how the ancient sandwich was put together, we can deduce that he stacked the meat and herbs and bound it all together with the bread.

Now we know the true origins of the sandwich, but I'm glad we ended up calling it the sandwich instead of the korech. Ordering a Teriyaki Chicken korech at Subway just doesn't roll off the tongue quite as nicely. 

Vesak Day: How do you celebrate Buddha's birthday?

Vesak Day: How do you celebrate Buddha's birthday?

Ever wondered what the significance of Vesak Day is other than just another public holiday? For most Singaporeans, our knowledge of Vesak Day is possibly limited to a Buddhist festival. Since we pride ourselves in being multi-racial and multi-cultural, let's dig a little deeper to understand more about this day's symbolism.

What is Vesak Day?

Vesak Day, also known as "Buddha Day", is considered one of the most important days in the Buddhist calendar where Buddhists all over the world commemorate the birth, enlightenment and death of Siddhartha Gautama Shakyamuni, also known as Buddha.

The life story of Buddha begins around 2,600 years ago in a place called Lumbini, near the border of Nepal and India. Siddharta Gautama was born a prince, but as he grew up, he realized that all of his experiences did not provide him lasting happiness or protection from suffering. After a long spiritual search he went into deep meditation, where he intended to achieve the state of enlightenment - a state of mind which is free from emotions and expresses itself through fearlessness, joy and active compassion.

To achieve enlightenment, the 29-year-old Prince vowed to sit under a fig tree and meditate until he transcended suffering. He then endured a 7 days mental battle with Mara, the god of desire, who tried to use all his wily tricks to lure the Prince away from his meditation. The Prince prevailed, becoming awakened and from then on known as Buddha. 

For the rest of his life, Buddha taught anyone who asked how they could achieve the same state. Therefore, Vesak Day is a day where Buddhists celebrate with immense joy, seek peace and reflect on their deeds. Around 33% of Singaporeans practice Buddhism, which makes this day one of the biggest festivals celebrated by this culturally rich red dot.

How does one observe Vesak Day?

Each country has its own traditions for celebrating Vesak. For instance, in Sri Lanka, numerous colourful lanterns are lit, whereas in Taiwan, fragrant water is poured over statues of Buddha.

In Singapore, Buddhists will usually visit their temples for ceremonies which will include prayers and offerings of candles and flowers. Most Buddhists believe that performing good deeds on Vesak Day will multiply their good deeds merit many times over. They also make an effort to bring happiness to the unfortunate, including the aged, the handicapped and the sick – either by donating money and gifts, or by visiting with them and cleaning their homes. 

Some interesting tidbits about Vesak Day 

One of the more interesting traditions practices by devotees during this day is also the Three-Step, One-Bow procession, where devotees take steps on both knees, bowing at every third step. As they do this, they pray for personal blessings, world peace and repentance. This procession usually begins 24 hours before and can be quite exhausting, lasting for up to two hours or more. 

Vesak Day hasn’t always been a national public holiday in Singapore. The Singapore Buddhist Association petitioned for this public holiday after the end of World War II, and it was finally awarded its due place on the calendar in 1955. 

Traditionally, as part of the Vesak Day celebrations, caged birds and animals are released as a symbol of liberation and peace in Singapore. Over time, however, The National Parks Board and the Buddhist Fellowship have advised against the practice as tame animals released into the wild are unlikely to survive. Even if they do survive, this practice of introducing all sorts of wildlife could also do irreversible damage to Singapore's natural ecosystem. 

A school more prestigious than Raffles Institution

A school more prestigious than Raffles Institution

Located near Windsor, Berkshire, Eton college is one of England’s oldest schools. And one of the hardest to get into around the world.

It was founded in 1440 by King Henry VI for 70 highly qualified boys who received scholarship from the King, and who then proceeded to study at Cambridge university. 

Throughout the school’s history, it has produced countless monarchs and influential people in the fields of arts, sports, science, finance and politics. Just looking at UK Prime Ministers alone, 19 of them are Old Etonians. Other notable alumni include Maynard Keynes, George Orwell, Nathaniel Rothschild and Prince William.

How hard it is to get in

If you think RI is hard to get into, think again. To get into Eton, the school has to be sure of your academic and social suitability. Unlike RI, where you can be completely anti-social and still get in based on your PSLE score, Eton only accepts people who can contribute to the boarding school. And there is a stringent set of admission criteria to sieve out unsuitable candidates. In fact, it receives so many applications every year that only the crème of the crop is left.

Below is the selection process:

  1. Register with the school 3 years before the boy is set to enter Eton.
  2. Take a computerised intelligence test that tests the boy in areas such as numeracy and verbal reasoning.
  3. Go for an online interview with one of Eton’s masters
  4. Go for an assessed group activity

Afterwards, you might be offered a conditional placement at Eton, dependent on successful completion of the King’s scholarship exam at age 13.

Sample questions from the King’s scholarship paper:

  1. Twenty-five protesters have been killed by the Army.  You are the Prime Minister.  Explain why employing the Army against violent protesters was the only option available to you and one which was both necessary and moral.
     
  2. If today is Friday, what is the day that follows the day that comes after the day that precedes the day before yesterday?

In the past, sons of Old Etonians were guaranteed entry into the school. However, Michael McCrum, the headmaster from 1970-1980, did away with such practice, because he believed that “to whom much has been given, much more is expected” and coming from a privileged background, sons of Old Etonians have to prove themselves even more. Times have indeed changed, but not the prestige associated with going to Eton, and that is why Eton remains such a hard school to get into.

How the school is run

Once you get in, privileges await; no wonder considering that the school fee is approximately S$22,000 per term (and there are 3 school terms in a UK school year). This sum is a lot more than what ordinary British parents can afford. However, do bear in mind that most Etonians are rich and famous. To them, such a sum is nothing.

Etonians are dressed like gentlemen – false collar, pin striped trousers, waistcoat and tailcoat—a role that the school wants them to grow into.

Etonians attend plays in a 400 seat theatre, swim and boat in an lake where the 2012 Olympic games was held, seek guidance from their personal tutors and board in quaint red cottages. 

The school is a no-nonsense place, demanding nothing less than excellence from its students. One Old Etonian described it as a “ruthlessly efficient machine for producing tough, super-confident, often arrogant young men who are geared for success and absolutely certain that they can get it.”

Boys are tested weekly and examined every term, with results made public. Housemasters summon you to their offices at the first hint of a drop in grades.

Eton also allows its boys to dream big. Not only does it provide the boys with the means –world class facilities – to do so, it also drills into its boys the confidence that no aspiration is so great that an Etonian cannot fulfil it. That is how it produced so many people of importance and influence.

How May Day became a holiday for working people

How May Day became a holiday for working people

Most people know little about May Day, or International Labour Day. Or we know is that there's an extra day of holiday in a year, and this year we're doubly lucky that it's a long weekend. 

It'a not all maypoles and dancing

Celebrations in May have long had two meanings. Both of them very different from each other. On one hand, May Day is known for celebrating the coming of spring. With roots in pagan Anglo-Saxo customs, people dance around maypoles, braid flowers in their hair and welcome the beginning of springtime fertility in some parts of the world (mostly in the UK).

Villages will hold festivals and other fun activities and the dancing symbolizes saying farewell to the harsh winter and ushering in a time of things coming back to life. 

On the other hand, it's a day of commemorating worker solidarity and protesting unfair working conditions. So, how did that happen?

Like so many incidents in history, it happened by complete accident. We go back to May in 1886, when some 200,000 workers in the U.S. engaged in a nationwide strike which changed history for the working people.

The History of May Day

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In the 18th century, working conditions in the US were extremely tough and it was the norm to work 10-16 hours a day. This was made worse as labour was done in unsafe conditions where injury and death were also commonplace. It wasn't until the early 19th century that the working class fought to shorten the workday without a cut in their pay, and by organising together, they were able to garner enough strength (and noise) to demand for an 8 hour workday.

This was spurred on as workers during that time were inspired by the idea of socialism. Workers had seen first-hand that capitalism benefited only their bosses, who lined their pockets while the workers slaved away tirelessly. In some areas in America, thousands of men, women and children were dying needlessly every year in the workplace, with life expectancy as low as their early twenties. They wanted change.

A worker's rights

On May 1, 1886, some 200,000 workers went on a three days strike in downtown Chicago. They were demonstrating to rebuff their bosses, and to demand for an 8 hour day and a worker-controlled industry. Armed police harassed and beat up striking workers as they demonstrated outside their workplaces (mostly steel factories at that time). Beatings with police clubs soon escalated into rock throwing by the strikers which the police responded to with gunfire. At least two strikers were killed and an unknown number were wounded.

Full of rage, a public meeting was called by some of the working the following day in Haymarket Square to discuss the police brutality. Due to bad weather and short notice, only about 3,000 of the tens of thousands of people showed up. This public meeting included families with young children.

As the speech wound down, the police suddenly rushed in, citing reports that the speaker was using inflammatory language and they were responding to the unrest. (The mayor of the city later on testified that throughout the entire time, the crowd was calm and orderly.) As the police began to disperse the already thinning crowd, a bomb was thrown into the crowd. No one knows who threw the bomb, but speculations varied from blaming any one of the demonstrating workers, to a spy working for the police.

Enraged, the police fired into the crowd. The exact number of civilians killed or wounded was never determined, but an estimated seven or eight civilians died, and up to forty were wounded. One officer died immediately and another seven died in the following weeks.   

This violence resulted in the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions (which later became the American Federation of Labor), proclaiming that "eight hours shall constitute a legal day's labor from and after May 1, 1886.

Today, we see May 1 being commemorated as a holiday for labor all across the world. 

6 cool facts about Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel paintings

6 cool facts about Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel paintings

You may have seen it in the movie Angels & Demons when Tom Hanks dashed through the Sistine Chapel, or being parodied by none other than Bart Simpsons himself. One of the most famous works of art in history is located in the Sistine Chapel in Vatican City.

Painted directly on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel by Michelangelo between the years 1508 and 1512, the entire piece of artwork is hailed as a cornerstone of High Renaissance Art.

When the paintings were first revealed to public in 1512, the masterpiece stunned viewers with its skilfully depicted figures and till today, it continues to impress awestruck tourists who travel from all over the world to visit it.

Here are 6 facts about Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel paintings you may not have known: 

1. The artwork was commissioned by Pope Julius II in 1508

Pope Julius II, also known as Giulio II and "Il papa terribile" (what an unfortunate thing to be called The Terrible Pope...) requested the Italian artist, Michelangelo, to paint the Sistine Chapel's ceiling.

The Pope was determined that Rome must be rebuilt to its former glory, and had embarked on a personal campaign to achieve this. He felt that such a large-scale artistic creation would not only add fame to his name, but also serve to overwrite anything that his predecessors have done before him. 

As Pope Julius did not specify what he want painted on the ceiling, Michelangelo drew inspiration from the Book of Genesis in the Bible for his paintings. 

2. There are more than 300 painted human figures on the ceiling

The main central portion of the ceiling showcases scenes from the Book of Genesis, with stories like the Creation of the world, the Creation of mankind, to the Fall of mankind, and even Noah's ark. 

However, on either side of these central panels, Michelangelo took his own creative license and painted huge portraits of other prophets in the Bible, as well as angels and cherubims. All along the bottom of these portraits also run smaller panels of tragedies that occured in ancient Israel, and the prophecy about the coming of Jesus.

All in all, there were over 300 painted figures that were brilliant in their lifelikeness and emotions on the ceiling. 

3. Michelangelo was actually a sculptor, not a painter

Michelangelo thought of himself mainly as a sculptor, and he preferred to work with marble throughout the bulk of his work. One of his most famous sculpture is David.

Here he is!

Here he is!

Prior to painting the Sistine Chapel, the only other painting he had done was during his apprenticeship with another artist called Ghirlandaio.

Pope Julius was insistent on having Michelangelo however, and in order to convince him, Julius offered him a lucrative contract to sculpt 40 sculptures for his tomb. Given his artistic preference, Michelangelo was more interested in the sculpting project, and he only took on the painting work for Sistine Chapel as a way to gain that contact. 

4. The paintings could have been completed sooner but many setbacks occured

It took Michelangelo just over four years to complete the paintings. The method of painting on wall surfaces is called frescoes. As Michelangelo had never painted frescoes before, he was learning how to do it as he painted. He also had to learn how to paint his figures in perspective, so that when viewed from the bottom looking up at the ceiling's curved walls, the figures will not look skewed. 

There was also the issue of damp weather, which caused the plaster to cure incredibly slowly, as well as have mold growing on the wall surfaces. The project was further stalled when Julius left to wage war on neighbouring territories, and Michelangelo would only continue the work when Julius returned as he feared he would not be paid. 

5. Michelangelo had assistants helping him

The image of this solitary figure toiling away in an empty chapel over a span of four years isn't entirely accurate. Of course, Michelangelo deserves the credit for sketching, designing and executing the bulk of the painting by himself.

But he also had many assistants who helped to mix his paints, climb up and down the scaffolding, and prepare the wall with plaster before the painting can be done over it. However, the moody and temperamental Michelangelo hired and fired these assistants on such a regular basis that none of them could claim credit for any of their work done. 

6. Michelangelo suffered permanent damage to his vision because of this project

One of the common ways of painting ceilings was to lie down flat on one's back and paint looking upwards. As Michelangelo did not want to work in this position, he devised a unique scaffolding system that could hold him and his materials high enough.

The problem was that the scaffolding curved at the top as it followed the curvature of the ceiling. Because of this, Michelangelo frequently had to bend backwards and stretch his arm over his head to paint. This awkward position over four years caused permanent damage to his eyesight.

The Monopoly board game is more awesome than you think

The Monopoly board game is more awesome than you think

During World War II, as the number of British soldiers being held prisoners behind enemy lines escalated, the British secret service enlisted a most peculiar partner for help: The board game Monopoly.

Secret service agents knocked on the door of Norman Watson, who owned the only Monopoly game factory in Britain at that time. He also owned the only company to have mastered the art of printing on silk material. Together they would play a part in rescuing an estimated 35,000 war prisoners during World War II. 

The plan was to hide useful tools inside Monopoly boxes which can help in the Allied prisoners escape. Miniature versions of tools such as a compass and a small metal file, along with essentials such as money, were hidden away inside the Monopoly tokens and hotels. This was done in a sealed-off part of the factory and workers who were involved in production was sworn to secrecy. It helped that most workers were afraid of going to prison themselves if the Germans ever caught word of the factory's part in helping the Allied forces.

But the most important of all these hidden pieces was a map made of silk. Even before the World War II, silk had always been a sought-after material of war to print military maps on as they wouldn't tear easily or dissolve in water like paper. It also wouldn't rustle. Imagine trying to open up a smuggled paper map but the paper's rustling sound attract the attention of enemy guards! 

It’s the sort of thing that could get a man killed...

It’s the sort of thing that could get a man killed...

It also helped that boredom proved to be quite a problem in German prisoner-of-war camps. The German Nazis were concerned that the prisoners would use the time to plan their escape or cause uprisings, and so they allowed humanitarian groups to distribute charity care packages to prisoners. The Monopoly game looked too innocent to raise any suspicion and was allowed through to all of the camps in an attempt to keep the prisoners calm and entertained. 

To the German eye, the board game seemed normal. But the prisoners have been trained that in the event of capture to be on the lookout for packages from humanitarian groups, so they knew what to look for. 

All thanks to this ingenious and unorthodox plan, an estimated 35,000 Allied prisoners broke out of camps and found their way safely home. 

So the next time you're about to flip the Monopoly board because you're down to your last $10 bill, just remember that this game that can cause player to irrationally lose their tempers is also the same one that saved thousands of lives in the war.

Cool things you probably didn't know about Leap Years

Cool things you probably didn't know about Leap Years

A leap year occurs when a year has 366 days, instead of the usual 365.

In ancient Rome, the Romans used to follow a calendar that had 355 days in a year. This calendar eventually became out of sync with the seasonal changes and it made it difficult to celebrate festivals at the same time each year. They tried adding a 22 day month to every second year so as to keep festivals occurring around the same time period each year, but their Roman ruler, Julius Caesar, decided to make things simpler by adding days to different months of the year to create what we now know as the 365 days calendar.

To be specific, the actual length of a year is 365.242 days, not 365 days. Because of this, every 4 years (or years that can be divided by 4) will result in an extra day. This extra day will be added to the calendar as February 29th, and the year will become known as a leap year. 

Ever wondered why February is shorter than every other month? 

This is because of Augustus, the Roman ruler to come after Julius Caesar. The Roman government named the month of August after Augustus to honour him, but the month was only 30 days long. Julius Caesar's month of July had 31 days, and it wouldn't look good on Augustus to have a shorter month than Caesar! 

To make August as long as July, they borrowed a day from February. This permanently reduced February to only 29 days during a leap year, and for every other year - only 28 days.

The "extra day" problem

Having an extra day in February can be somewhat problematic. For example, if you are an employee being paid a monthly salary, you essentially are working an extra day for free during a leap year. But if you are being paid per hour, you literally have an extra payday.

There has also been cases of criminals convicted to prisons suing the government for "miscalculating" the length of their prison sentences because they had failed to consider the additional days they had to serve on account of the leap years. Good thing most, if not all, of the cases were thrown out of court as it is worth noting that the prison sentences go by number of years, regardless of how long or short each year may be. 

Similarly, I bet it sucks to be born on February 29. You only celebrate your birthday once every four years! Or you can use it as an excuse to throw the most lavish celebration ever since it occurs so rarely.

The leap year mother and daughter

On February 29, 2008, Michelle Birnbaum from New Jersey gave birth to her daughter, Rose. The coolest part about this story? Michelle herself was also born on February 29, making both mummy and baby both leap year babies! 

The odds of someone being born on February 29 are 1 in 1,641. However, the odds of both a mother and daughter sharing that same birthday of February 29 are 2 million to 1

That definitely makes it a birthday worth celebrating!

How does GPS work?

How does GPS work?

The GPS, or Global Positioning System is a technical marvel. It's one of those things we don't think much about at all in our lives and probably take for granted. I bet there are still some people out there in this world who believes GoogleMaps is powered by the sheer magic of unicorns and moonbeams.

Even wondered what our lives would be like without GPS?

This. It would be like this. 

This. It would be like this. 

When was GPS technology created?

GPS was originally created by the United States Department of Defense in the early 1980s. But guess what? It was used as a military application and was never intended to be released to civilians. It was only in the late 1990s that the patent for GPS was released for commercial use. It has since become a multi-billion dollar industry with every smart phone having its own GPS tracking system inbuilt within. 

So how does GPS technology actually work?

There is a group of satellites currently orbiting earth with the sole purpose of transmitting precise signals to your GPS receivers. GPS receivers can be your phones or car tracking devices. These GPS receivers will convert use these signals to calculate and display your accurate location, speed, and time.

How do they convert it? Through the marvels of mathematics! 

GPS receivers use the mathematical principle of trilateration, which is the process of determining locations of points by measurement of distances using the geometry of circles, to pinpoint your exact location. All thanks to the power of computing, your GPS device is able to calculate and display the data within seconds. Which is why you don't need to wait half an hour before your GoogleMaps show you how to walk to that famous cafe you're trying to find. 

We'd pick a paper map over half an hour of waiting any day...

We'd pick a paper map over half an hour of waiting any day...

GPS receivers are usually accurate to within 15 metres, but the ones in your smart phones are generally accurate to 5 metres. One weakness of GPS is that its signal has trouble penetrating indoor spaces. This is why some GPS navigation gets lost once you enter a building as it's unable to capture enough position data from the signal through the structure walls.

GPS privacy concerns

Because your phone's mapping apps require an active GPS connection, there have been concerns raised about invasion of privacy through this active connection.

Personally, I think the threat is low, but if you are worried, you can switch off the location technology on your phone. If you are using an iPhone, go to Settings > Privacy > switch off Location Services. If you are using an Android phone, go to Settings > Location > Google Location Settings > Location Reporting and Location History > switch off both.

By doing this, you basically have no cause for concern about privacy issues, but it also means you won't be able to use all mapping apps. Another alternative is to go through the long list of apps in the Location Services screen and below 'Share My Location', you can choose to set your mapping apps to 'Always' and then set the other apps to 'Never'. This ensures you take control of which apps use your location data rather than switching all of them off. 

Your passport is more ancient than you think

Your passport is more ancient than you think

Every time you go on an overseas trip with your family, something happens at airport so frequently that you may not even think much of it - a tedious passport examination.

It doesn't just happen once too, along the way at various checkpoints, airport security will ask to see your passport. It seems like this is just another modern form of security, but did you know that the idea of a passport is surprisingly ancient?

It was even mentioned in the Bible. And that book is pretty old. 

The first so-called passport ever mentioned

In the chapter of Nehemiah in the Bible, there is a passage that goes like this: 

I also said to him, “If it pleases the king, may I have letters to the governors of Trans-Euphrates, so that they will provide me safe-conduct until I arrive in Judah? And may I have a letter to Asaph, keeper of the royal park, so he will give me timber to make beams for the gates of the citadel by the temple and for the city wall and for the residence I will occupy?” And because the gracious hand of my God was on me, the king granted my requests. So I went to the governors of Trans-Euphrates and gave them the king’s letters.

 Those letters mentioned were a form of travel papers required so the author can have safe passages through foreign lands. Not unlike the current function of a passport. 

Passport didn't start out as paper booklets too

Centuries later, the Mongols would issue one of the earliest passports in the form iron medallions. Under Genghis Khan's rule, intricately engraved metal plaques called paizi were handed out to foreigners travelling on state business in Mongol territory. They symbolised that these people were under the Khan's protection and were to pass through without harm. 

A bronze  paizi  currently displayed in The Metropolitan Museum of Art

A bronze paizi currently displayed in The Metropolitan Museum of Art

The words engraved on the face of the paizi says, “By the strength of Eternal Heaven, an edict of the Emperor. He who has no respect shall be guilty.”

The coolest kind of passport photo

But it was only until 1641 that we see the first signs of the type of paper passports in the booklet-form we know today in Britain. The oldest British passports went through a weird phase where they were written in French, as French was considered the more diplomatic language during that time. It was changed to English in the 18th century.

Those early passports also had no rules on what kind of photos you used. Some people posed with their entire families, and some even with their pets! That would have been way better than our current boring tight-lipped smile pose against a white backdrop, don't you think?

It wasn't until the 1914, during World War 1, that we see the now-familiar format of paper booklet with single portrait photo and the widely used rubber stamp to signify approved access into a country.

Even so, when it was first suggested that physical details such as age (and height for the British passports) should be added, the British foreign secretary considered the idea degrading and offensive. Good thing our Singapore passports don't make us state our height, weight or favourite unhealthy snack to binge on late at night.  

Creepily abandoned places you can actually visit around the world

Creepily abandoned places you can actually visit around the world

There's a famous saying that goes, "The only permanent thing in the world is change". Your history book is one way to understand how time changes the world we live in, but there are also some real-life places that speak of the past in a much more impactful way. And most of them can be visited.

Here’s a selection of some of the most creepily abandoned places around the world that you can take your next family trip to (if you can convince your parents) for us to experience and reimagine the way people used to live their daily lives then. 

1. Kolmanskop — Namibia

Founded in the early 1900s by German settlers looking for precious gems, Kolmanskop was a small town in the heart of the Namib Desert. The surge of wealth gave out after the diamond fields started to deplete due to over-harvesting, and by the 1950s, the town was completely abandoned.

After being left to the mercies of the elements, the place is now visited by photographers to capture photos of buildings with their insides often covered in sand blown in from the desert; in one of the most hauntingly beautiful ghost towns on earth. 

2. House of the Bulgarian Communist Party — Bulgaria

Opening in 1981, the headquarters of the Bulgarian Communist Party was the center of Bulgarian politics during the Soviet Era. But with the fall of the Soviet Union, the building soon went into disrepair and is now a ghost of its former glory.

Looking like a shiny flying saucer, much of the building's roof has been stolen, leaving the inside often piled high with heavy snow from the Bulgarian winters. There has been talks to restore the building in an effort to increase tourism to the area, but the cost is currently too high for the government to do so.

3. Wonderland Amusement Park — Beijing, China

At the time being touted as the largest amusement park in Asia, and China's answer to Disneyland, construction to the Wonderland Amusement Park was abandoned in 1998 after a dispute over land prices. 

Some of the land was then used by local farmers to grow crops, but recent reports show that Beijing's economic boom will allow for tearing down of the abandoned park structures to make way for a brand new shopping mall.

4.  The Maunsell Sea Forts — England

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Looking like a scene straight out of a Star Wars movie, The Maunsell Sea Forts were erected near the Thames and Mersey rivers in Britain to station soldiers to help defend against potential German air or naval raids during World War II.

After being decommissioned in the 1950s, they have been inhabited by a group of people claiming the forts as a new independent state, called the Principality of Sealand. They even have their own flag. 

5. Isla de las Muñecas — Mexico City

Also known as the Island of the Dolls, this freaky island located on the outskirts of Mexico City is home to thousands of broken, worn out, and downright creepy dolls. The dolls hang from the trees, on walls and are seated on the grounds. The story goes that the island’s former caretaker discovered a dead girl in the island's canal. He began collecting dolls and hanging them up all around the island as a way to appease the girl's spirit.

Bonus creepy story: In 2001, the caretaker himself was discovered dead in the exact spot that he claimed to have found the dead girl.

6. Pripyat — Ukraine

Pripyat was built as a nuclear city. The name may sound familiar as it was the hometown of many workers who worked in the nearby Chernobyl nuclear power plant. The power plant famously exploded in the 1986 Chernobyl Disaster (one of the worst nuclear accidents in history). When the accident happened, the entire town had to be evacuated.

The leak of nuclear radiation caused families to flee as fast as they could, leaving most of belongings behind. If you visit today, you can still find remnants of their lives such as children's toys and household items in relatively pristine conditions. 

7. Michigan Central Station — Detroit, USA

Michigan Central Station was built in 1913 and was considers the tallest train station in the world at the time. After numerous planning mistakes and lack of funds, however, the station was closed in 1988. Much of the fine details that once characterized the building’s architecture have been either stolen or destroyed by vandals.

Given the station’s place on the National Register of Historic Places, many are hoping that the building will be renovated. Estimates are that it would cost $110 to $300 million to restore the station, and up to today, the project never happened. Considering that trains are pretty much obsolete now, it's doubtful that the station will ever return to its former glory. 

8. Beelitz-Heilstätten Military Hospital — Germany

Built in the 1800s, the Beelitz-Heilstätten hospital complex helped rehabilitate a great number of tuberculosis patients from the city of Berlin. The hospital was turned into a military hospital when World War I broke out, and Adolf Hitler himself recuperated from a leg wound there.

During World War II, the hospital was occupied by Soviet forces, and it was officially abandoned in 1995 when the Soviets withdrew from it. Now, rusty hospital beds, vine-covered walls scrawled with graffiti and slowly peeling paint are what remains of it. 

The origins of 'OK'

The origins of 'OK'

We say it all the time. Whether using it honestly or sarcastically, we probably don't even think twice about how and where it originally came from.

"OK."

This two little letters that means your complete agreement with whatever’s being discussed. Or, if you are using it sarcastically by saying it another way, it could also express disagreement or doubt.

The battle for the 'OK'.

For a long time, it was widely assumed that this word was an invention of the USA. But during World War II, Americans came into pretty close contact with other nations fighting both with and against them on their land, and they found out that it wasn’t just an American thing after all. Other countries were also using this word frequently, and also with the same meaning.

Pretty soon, everyone was trying to stake a claim that they were the ones that started it. The Bedouins claimed they first used it while roaming the Sahara Desert. The Germans said it was a reference to a rank in the German military, Oberst Kommandant, and The French said it came from Aux Caynes, a town famous for its rum. Everyone wanted to credit their country with “OK.”

Enter Allen Walker, the 'OK' expert.

A longtime English professor at Columbia University, Allen Walker Read had a long career in tracing the evolution of language.

He found the first use of the word “Dixie” in a minstrel show and “Podunk,” he found, was a Native American term that was used for swampy lands. He also went on record with a powerful statement, saying, “There is no single, monolithic ‘correct English.’ There is nothing inherent or intrinsic that makes language ‘correct.’ ”

He was also the one who finally solved the ''OK" mystery. Professor Read (what an appropriate name for an English professor) found the earliest use of the word in an issue of the Boston Morning Post dated 1839, where the phrase ''o.k. -- all correct.'' appeared. This was during a time when initials and poor spelling like ''oll korrect,'' were the trend.

He also discovered ''KY'' meant ''no use'' (''know yuse''), but that word did not catch on. It apparently didn't have the same ring as "OK". His discovery caused much jealousy by other linguists as they themselves wanted to be the ones to achieve the credits for discovering "OK".

So now we know! It did end up being a US word after all. 

Fun fact: Professor Read even wrote the most meta of all words: The definition of the word “dictionary" for the Encyclopedia Britannica. It's like word inception.

Isaac Newton was actually pretty badass.

Isaac Newton was actually pretty badass.

Hear the name "Isaac Newton", and it will usually conjure up an image of a man with long curly hair sitting under a tree, having just been knocked on the head by a falling apple. Best known for discovering the laws of gravity and motion, you have him to thank for those dreaded math lessons as well since he also invented calculus.

The last thing you would expect his name to conjure up would be images of him skulking around London pubs in disguises and spying on criminals like a badass Science Batman. But that's exactly what he did. 

Here's a rundown of the crazy and daring (non-scientific) exploits of Isaac Newton: 

Isaac Newton - Warden of the Royal Mint

In 1696, Newton accepted a position with the London Royal Mint that had little to do with science. This role meant that he was the head of an organization that, at that time, was rampant with counterfeiting. Coins were used during this era and most were made of silver. Unsurprisingly, the silver was worth more than the monetary value and one of the most common criminal trade was to melt the coins down for their silver and replace them with zinc or lead.

Counterfeiting was an incredibly dangerous trade too. Since it was so widespread, those found guilty were hanged, drawn, and quartered. Newton suspected that around 20% of the coins collected by the Mint were counterfeit and he decided to put an end to this. 

Isaac Newton - Science Batman

Among his targets was a man named William Chaloner, who would ultimately confess to minting somewhere around $35,000 worth of counterfeit coins alone. He did this through a scheme so audacious, it was almost hilarious: Chaloner would dress up as a respectable gentleman complete with top hat and cane to visit the Royal Mint. He would offer the Mint his services of inspecting the minting process and then advise them on how to better combat counterfeits. Irony, much? 

Chaloner was first arrested in 1697, but was able to pull some strings to get himself released. Newton was furious, and over a period of the next two years, he would dress up in various disguises and head out to some of the most notorious gangster pubs in London. Being the Warden of the Mint, Newton could arrest and interrogate anyone he wanted. 

Bet you didn't think the Father of Gravity would have the time to go undercover in some of London's most dangerous places. Don't you have some science to do in your laboratory!? But most of Gotham's citizens didn't expect Bruce Wayne to do much in life except being a playboy billionaire either. 

Isaac Newton - Justice of the Coin

It was during this two years that Newton built up a huge pile of evidence against Chaloner thanks to a network of informants, spies and witness confessions. This evidence eventually helped him see Chaloner hung for his crimes. 

it took the judge only two minutes to pass judgment.