Monday, July 30, 2012

Solving the Magic Cube: Helpful Steps and Tips

The Rubik's cube was invented by Ernő Rubik in 1974, taking inspiration from smoothed pebbles in the Danube River, in order to help explain three-dimensional geometry. I started doing the Rubik's cube when I was in Germany in 2007. I was on a four or five hour train ride to Berlin from Oldenburg and had time to kill. A friend of mine could do it so she gave me a few hints to start me on my way. My fastest time is 53 seconds (which is a far cry from the world record) but it's been ages since I had the ability to work it that fast. Recently, I only pull the cube out on occasion to impress people at parties or just to exercise my brain. Now I'm ready to lay some knowledge down for you to pick up.

Stage 1: The Terminology

Middle Pieces

The middle pieces never move.  The cube will always appear the same when solved because the blue side will never touch the green side, the white side will never touch the yellow side and the red side will never touch the orange side (See Figure 1).

Figure 1. The middle pieces are indicated with red white and blue. These pieces never move.

Edge Pieces

The Edge pieces are the 12 pieces that form the sides of each square on each side.  They have two colors and you can move these pieces (See Figure 2).

Figure 2. The edge piece is indicated by red and blue. There are 12 of these moving pieces.

Corner Pieces

The corner pieces are the 8 pieces that form the corners of the square on each side.  They have three colors and you can move these pieces (See Figure 3).

Figure 3. The corner piece is indicated by the red, blue and white. There are eight of these moving pieces.

Up, Down, Right, Left, Front, Back and Inverted Turns

For the sake of leaving confusion out of the equation the Up side will always refer to the white side, and the Down side will be yellow.  Up and Down can also be commands for turning the Up or Down side, respectively.  Right, Left, Front and Back refer to the side the user turns.  There will be no color associated with right, left, front or back because this changes as we progress.  All turns should be assumed to be clockwise unless indicated by an “i,” which represents an inverted turn or a counterclockwise turn. All turns indicated are a quarter of a full turn unless otherwise stated.  A full turn returns the side to its original position; a half turn rotates the side 90 degrees.

Middle Row

The middle row will always refer to the band of non-Up, non-Down side colors: blue, red, green, and orange.  It is the collection of edge and middle pieces in the middle of the Rubik’s cube (See Figure 4).

Figure 4. The middle row is this band of edge and middle pieces.


This is where the piece belongs in relationship to the cube.  For example the orange/green/white corner piece belongs in the corner where the orange green and white sides of the cube meet (See Figure 5).  Therefore a piece can be in the correct position.  This also refers to whether or not the colors are correctly aligned based on the colors of the middle pieces, which again don’t move (See Figure 6).  Therefore, the colors can be in the correct position as well.

Figure 5. This piece is in the correct position.

Figure 6. These colors are in the correct position.

Other Helpful Information

Specific examples will be used throughout this post in order to better explain the concept.  Because the Rubik’s cube is so dynamic, the one you are working on will most likely appear completely different from the one discussed.  The point is to see the pattern presented here, focus on the end result and don’t get bogged down with details.

Stage 2: The Completion

Step 1 – Solving the Down Cross

The first two steps are the most important and the most difficult things you must do to solve the Rubik’s Cube.  Start by solving the Down cross.  As stated before in the Terminology section, the Down side always refers to the yellow side and the middle piece will never move from its current location.

Take your Rubik’s Cube and hold it so the side with the yellow square in the center (the Down side) is facing up.  Locate on the cube all of the other edge pieces with yellow on them (ignore the yellow corner pieces for now).  Find the orange and yellow edge piece and turn the sides until the piece is on the edge of the orange and white sides.  Turn the Up side (the White side) one quarter turn, invert turn the left side and turn the right side.  Now invert-turn the orange side.  If you have followed the instructions, the yellow/orange edge piece should be lined up on the yellow/orange side (See Figure 7).

Figure 7. The yellow/orange edge piece is in the yellow/orange position.

For the rest of the edge pieces, you will have to use these steps, logic and reason to keep the yellow/orange edge piece in its place and solve for the other three edge pieces.  The end product should look something like Figure 8.

Figure 8. The Down cross is complete. The edge pieces are in the correct position.

Step 2 – Filling in the Corners

Now hold your completed Down cross so it faces up.  Locate the yellow corner pieces.  Find the yellow/red/blue piece and line it up on the cube so that it is in the white/blue/red corner position (See Diagram 1).

If the yellow side of the corner piece is on the blue side of the cube, i-turn the Up side, i-turn the right side, turn the Up side, turn the right side (See Diagram 1).

Diagram 1. This shows the sequence necessary to solve for the corners on the Down side with the yellow side of the yellow/red/blue corner piece starting on the blue side of the cube.

If the yellow side of the corner piece is on the red side of the cube, turn the Up side, turn the Left side, i-turn the Up side, i-turn the Left side (See Diagram 2).

Diagram 2. This shows the sequence necessary to solve for the corners on the Down side with the yellow side of the yellow/red/blue corner piece starting on the red side of the cube.

If the yellow side of the corner piece is on the white side of the cube, you must manipulate the cube so that it is in one of the above positions.  Continue following these steps and manipulating the cube until the other three yellow corner pieces are solved and the Down side is complete (See Figure 9).

Figure 9. The Down side is complete. Notice the “T” shape on all sides of the cube.

Step 3 – Working Out the Middle Row

The next thing to do is to solve for the four edge pieces in the middle row.  Hold the cube so that the Up side faces up and locate the four-listed edge pieces.  Start by finding the red/blue edge piece.

If the red side of the edge piece is on the Up side of the cube, line up the blue side of the edge piece with the blue side of the cube.  Hold the cube so that the red side is facing you, i-turn Up, i-turn Front, turn Up, turn Front, turn Up, turn Right, i-turn Up, i-turn Right (See Diagram 3).

Diagram 3. This shows the sequence necessary to complete the middle row with the red side of the edge piece on the Up side of the cube as a starting point.

If the blue side of the edge piece is on the Up side of the cube, line up the red side of the edge piece with the red side of the cube.  Hold the cube so that the red side is facing you, turn Up, turn Right, i-turn Up, i-turn Right, i-turn Up, i-turn Front, turn Up, turn Front (See Diagram 4)

Diagram 4. This shows the sequence necessary to complete the middle row with the blue side of the edge piece on the Up side of the cube as a starting point.

If the blue side of the edge piece is on the red side of the cube and the red side of the edge piece is on the blue side of the cube (in other words the edge piece is in the right position on the middle row but the colors are wrong) then perform either of the above maneuvers to free the piece.  Then line it up according to the above instructions and follow the method again.

Find the rest of the middle row pieces and do the above maneuvers to complete the middle row until your cube looks like Figure 10.

Figure 10. The middle row is complete.

Step 4 – Solving the Up Cross

If your cube looks like Figure 11, hold the cube so that the Up side is up and in the same position as it is in Figure 11.  Turn Front, turn Right, turn Up, i-turn right, i-turn Up, i-turn front (See Diagram 5).

Figure 11. This shows one starting position for solving the Up cross.

If your cube looks like Figure 12, hold the cube so that the Up side is up and in the same position as it is in Figure 12.  Turn Front, turn Right, turn Up, i-turn right, i-turn Up, i-turn front (See Diagram 5).

Figure 12. This shows one starting position for solving the Up cross.

Diagram 5. This shows the sequence necessary to complete the Up cross starting with any position.

Once your cube has an Up cross you will have to position the edge pieces so that the colors line up with the correct side.  To do this line up the Up side so that only one color is in the correct position.  This will not work if more than one color is in the correct position (if all four edge pieces and colors are already in the correct position skip to step 5).

Hold the cube so that the correctly aligned color is facing you (See Figure 13).  Turn Up, turn Right, turn Up, i-turn Right, turn Up, turn Right, turn Up, turn Up, i-turn Right (See Diagram 6).  Then repeat this sequence until all colors in the Up cross line up with the corresponding side and your cube looks like Figure 14.

Figure 13. This shows the correct way to hold the Rubik’s cube before finishing the Up cross.

Diagram 6. This shows the sequence necessary to complete the Up cross. Every other turn is a clockwise Up side turn with the last showing two turns. The Right side turns alternate between clockwise and counterclockwise starting with clockwise.

Figure 14. This shows the completed Up cross with all colors and pieces in the correct positions.

Step 5 – Positioning the Corners

Look at all the Up side corner pieces.  Decide if any of the corner pieces are in the correct position.  If no pieces are in the correct position hold the cube so the Up side is up; it doesn’t matter which side faces you.  Turn Up, turn Right, i-turn Up, i-turn Left, turn Up, i-turn Right, i-turn Up, turn Left (See Diagram 7).

Diagram 7. This shows the sequence necessary to position the corners properly. The outcome shown in the diagram is not the only outcome possible, there are many outcomes.

Re-evaluate the cube.  Are any of the corner pieces in the correct position?  If none are, repeat the above sequence until at least one corner piece is in the correct position.

When one corner piece is in the correct position hold the cube so that Up side is up and the piece that is in the correct position is in the lower right hand corner of the cube (See Figure 15 ).  Repeat the above sequence.  Check to see if all the corner pieces are in the correct positions.  Do the sequence until they all are.

Figure 15. This shows the correct position for a corner piece and the way to hold the cube before positioning the remaining three corner pieces.

Step 6 – The Big Finish

Look at the Up side and the corner pieces.  Are any of the colors of the corner pieces in the correct position?

If none are it does not matter how you hold the cube to do this sequence.  If one of the corner pieces does have it’s colors in the correct position start by holding the cube with the Up side facing up and that piece in the lower right hand corner of the Up side (See Figure 16).

Figure 16. This shows the proper way to hold the cube before completing the cube if one corner piece has the colors in the correct position.

There are two ways for two corner pieces to appear on the cube with the colors in the correct position.  The first way is shown in Figure 17 and should be held as Figure 17 appears.

Figure 17. This shows the correct way to hold a Rubik’s cube before finishing the cube when two corner pieces have the colors in the proper position in the shown arrangement.

The second is shown in Figure 18 and should be held as Figure 18 appears.

Figure 18. This shows the correct way to hold a Rubik’s cube before finishing the cube when the corner pieces have the colors in the proper position in the shown arrangement.

This final step is easy to get lost in, so PAY ATTENTION to the colors.

Start by turning the Up side.  This is the sequence: i-turn Right, i-turn Down, turn Right, turn Down (See Diagram 8).  Repeat this sequence until the white edge piece and the white corner piece line up and they are on the Up side of the cube.

Diagram 8. This shows the sequence necessary to complete the Rubik’s cube. This particular sequence is sometimes repeated a number of times, other times only one time will be necessary.

Then turn the Up side again and repeat the above method until the Up side is completed.  If everything worked out nicely your cube may need a few turns to get the rows lined up, but it should be complete and look like Figure 19.

Figure 19. This shows a solved Rubik’s cube. All color sides are completed.

Stage 3:  The Tips and Techniques

Seeing the Big Picture

Solving a Rubik’s Cube is about noticing patterns and learning how to manipulate the changing sides so that the result is what you want.  You will never solve the same Rubik’s cube twice.  It may be the same device but the colors will never be scrambled in the same order.  Finally, keeping track of which step you’re on and knowing how to go back to where you made the mistake is key.  Pay attention to the way the cube changes when you turn a side.

Decreasing Your Time

There are many ways to decrease your time.  The best way is to practice; the more you do the cube the more likely you are to be able to solve it and to solve it fast.  Also when you practice you learn about the dynamics of the cube, how it changes, why certain maneuvers work, etc.  The more you know about the cube the more likely you will be able to skip steps or do more than one step at a time.

Alternative Method

The above method is meant for beginners.  Once you have been playing around with the cube for a while you begin to discover new ways to complete it.  The following way does not go into as much detail as the above method because it is meant for those who are familiar with the movements of the cube.

Start by solving the orange/green/yellow 2x2x2 cube.  Then solve the red/green/orange/yellow 3x2x2 box.  Then add the blue side until you have a 3x3x2 box.  Finish by solving the white side in the same way you would solve in the beginner’s method.

Other fun ideas include solving the cube with flowers on each side like in Figure 20, and mixing up one cube and trying to match it using another cube.

Figure 20. This represents one of many other fun ways to solve the Rubik’s cube.

Friday, July 27, 2012

The Mandrake: Root of All Evil or Apple of Love

I took a course called Plants and Civilization at Colorado State University in the spring of 2011. It was based around the book Botany of Desire by Michael Pollan and is where I think my love of plants became truly solidified. I wrote this piece for my final paper and am very proud of it so I now have it published on the interweb for those who, like me, love plants and how they relate to humans.

Throughout history the mandrake has been given a reputation as both sacred and sinister in many aspects of human culture.  Evidence of both views can be found in language, uses and the rituals surrounding it.  The words people used to describe this plant include the ancient Greek word, “Love apples,” and the Arabic word, “Devil’s testicles;” (Thompson, 1968) other words in other cultures depended on the sex, use and part of the plant a person is referred to (Zarcone, 2005).  Various reasons are given for why this plant became a thing to cherish and a thing to fear; the mandrake was loved because it was considered an aphrodisiac and could increase fertility but it was also distressing due to it’s magic and it’s poison (Bennett, 1991).

The mandrake is a perennial herb and member to a family that includes both foul and beneficial plants: the Solanaceae family (Simoons, 1998).  Some relatives include edible plants such as the potato and the tomato and poisonous plants like deadly nightshade. (Simoons, 1998).  The substances that make up a mandrake are also conflicting.  All mandrake species contain up to 0.4% alkaloids (Rätsch 1992).  The chief active ingredient is scopolamine, a hallucinogen and a poison (Bennett, 1991).  Another major substance in mandrakes is atropine, which is found in highest levels in the roots of flowering mandrake and is known to cause the pupil dilation and got it’s name from Atropos, one of three Greek Fates who chose how a person would die (Hanus et al., 2007).  The heavy, fruity, provocative odor of the fruit of a mandrake, which is mentioned in a love poem in the Christian Bible, comes from over 100 different components including ethyl butyrate, hexanol and hexyl acetate (Hanus et al., 2005).


There were many rituals surrounding the collection of a mandrake, some due to the evils associated with the plant, others due to the good.  The evil associations begin in Europe where it was believed that mandrakes only grew beneath the gallows from the matter of the hanged person (Simoons, 1998).  Daleschamps went so far as to say that mandrakes only were produced from the sperm of hanged men or men crushed on a wheel but not from women because “female sperm cannot be prolific on its own” (Zarcone, 2005).  In Iran, it was believed that the mandrake was produced from the blood of a god or primeval giant that was killed violently (Zarcone, 2005).  Because of these beliefs, one rule for collection stated that mandrakes could only be collected beneath gallows or at crossroads, especially where suicide was involved (Simoons, 1998).

New rules and formulas for digging up mandrakes began popping up in various areas of the world; the most common ritual involved the use of a dog.  In Roman, Greek, Persian and Turkish there are various forms of words that refer to the mandrake and mean human plant (Simoons, 1998) because it is thought to look like a man due to the thick, fleshy root’s resemblance to the human-form (Beahm, 2005), and the rootlets give the impression of hair for a beard (Zarcone, 2005).  Many cultures believed that the mandrake was a living spirit that would shriek when uprooted killing the digger (Rätsch, 1992).  In a Persian engraving a man is seen wearing a turban to protect his ears and pulling up a mandrake with the assistance of a dog (Zarcone, 2005) because dogs were often employed to pull up the roots.  The owner of the dog would starve the dog for a few days then they would tie a string between the dog and the plant and lure the dog with food (Thompson, 1968).  The dog would pull up the plant and die from the shriek; the digger would be safe to collect the mandrake (Rätsch, 1992).  In South Europe and Southwest Asia, the dog’s that were used to pull up mandrakes were sometimes honored, and the bodies were burned (Simoons, 1998).  If one wanted to avoid the loss of a dog when digging the plant, a pole was used instead.  If you stuck the pole deeply in the ground and bent it before tying a string between its end and the mandrake, the pole would pull the mandrake from the ground as it righted itself (Zarcone, 2005).


Some good rituals involved circles, dancing and love poems.  The circles were used both to prevent the mandrake from fleeing and to mark possession over the mandrake (Simoons, 1998).  One rule said that the herbalist must surround the mandrake when trying to collect it or it will run away (Zarcone, 2005).  Theophrastus said that three circles should be drawn around the plant with a sword (Simoons, 1998).  One person should face west and cut the mandrake from the ground while the other dances around it speaking of love (Simoons, 1998).  In Romania, girls would collect mandrake in the nude, they would then prostrate themselves three times toward the east and walk around the plant three times while reciting magic formulas, each of these actions were meant to increase fertility (Simoons, 1998).

Other rituals stated suitable times for collection including: midnight, on Fridays before sunrise, or on Tuesdays in December or March when the sun is shining (Simoons, 1998).  The collection of mandrake in Romania often required the assistance of a sorceress, or “old wise woman” and was conducted in secret at night when there was a full moon (Simoons, 1998).  Another ritual stated that to reveal the roots, or feet and hands of the mandrake, one must use an ivory spade (Zarcone, 2005).

Mandrakes were heavily traded throughout Europe (Simoons, 1998).  The plant was rare and it was perilous to collect, therefore it was often extremely expensive (Rätsch, 1992).  The plants were so important to families that they were often passed down through wills (Simoons, 1998).  Mandrakes were carved to render them more lifelike, increase their value and to fool barren women who were eager to buy them (Gordon, 1977).  Soon, many false mandrakes began to appear on the market: ginger, ginseng, May apple, orchids, celandine and the English mandrake; (Rätsch, 1992) bryony and deadly nightshade were most often used as fakes especially in Romania (Simoons, 1998).  Often the falsifier would go to great lengths to create a false mandrake: carving, pressing, and wet-molding (Simoons, 1998).  After creating a human shape, the counterfeit was placed in the ground to hide any bruises and imperfections with re-growth; (Simoons, 1998) this practice was exposed in 1567 (Gordon, 1977).  For the next hundred years misguided people still bought the counterfeits and herbalists continued to speak out against them (Gordon, 1977).  Why did people want mandrakes so badly that they’d spend a fortune on one, even a fake?


Uses for the mandrake, both the noble and the criminal, are found in many cultures around the world.  One such use was as an aphrodisiac and a fertility boost, therefore witches in medieval Europe used them in love potions (Thiselton-Dyer, 1889).  Egyptians believed that the mandrake increased fertility (Rätsch, 1992).  Jewish people used to lay a mandrake under the bed to ensure conception (Simoons, 1998).  The possession of a mandrake meant many things for the owner especially awakened love and fertility (Rätsch, 1992).  In Persia if you gave a mandrake to a person of desire without their knowledge they would return your feelings (Simoons, 1998).  Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love was often called Mandragoritis, which means “she of the mandrake” (Simoons, 1998).  The plant was also often worn as an amulet for purity (Simoons, 1998).  In Romania the mandrake was used as a charm or talisman, in bath water for washing, and in food and drink as well as many other ways; these uses resulted in early marriage because young girls received more invitations, became better dancers and aroused passions in young men (Simoons, 1998).

The Christian Bible mentions the word dudaïm twice, which nearly all scholars now believe to mean mandrakes (Thompson, 1968).  Genesis 30:14 states “During wheat harvest, Reuben went out into the field and found mandrake plants, which he brought to his mother Leah.  Rachel said to Leah, ‘Please give me some of your son’s mandrakes.’” Rachel was having a hard time conceiving and wanted the mandrakes for fertility (Thompson, 1968).  In the Song of Solomon there is a love poem that says, “The mandrakes send out their fragrance, and at our door is every delicacy, both new and old, that I have stored up for you, my lover”  (Thompson, 1968).  The mandrake is also mentioned in six of William Shakespeare’s plays and was a common theme in many German and French novels of the Romantic period (Zarcone, 2005)


In the Physiologus, or “Naturalist” bestiary of the medieval times there is a story called “On the Elephant.”  In the story there are two elephants, one male, one female.  They go off to the land of paradise and the female elephant tricks the male into eating some mandrake.  The female then becomes pregnant (Simoons, 1998).  The story is reminiscent of that of Adam and Eve in the Christian Bible with the mandrake representing the forbidden fruit of knowledge.  A story about an ancient king, Hermanos, states that the king, who had no children and was not attracted to women, asked a sage for advice.  The sage told him to wait for an astrologically opportune time to obtain a mandrake and put some semen on it to create a child by alchemy.  In the legend this is how the king had children (Simoons, 1998).

The mandrake, when used as a protector was worn or kept safe rather than ingested (Simoons, 1998).  The possession of a mandrake could mean that good fortune would be found in both business and play, health, protection from spells and ghosts, divination would become possible and immortality would be within reach (Rätsch, 1992).  In Silesia, Thuringia and Bohemia, the mandrake was connected to hidden treasure (Thiselton-Dyer, 1889).  In Turkey, mandrake was used as a talisman to protect the owner against blows, stabs, and bullets (Simoons, 1998).  It was also believed that the owner could become invisible while wearing it (Simoons, 1998).  In Southern Slovakia people bathed their mandrake in milk, dried it carefully and watched over the chest it was kept in (Simoons, 1998).

In both Germany and France, where the mandrake was a popular theme of many novels of the romantic period, the owner of a well cared for mandrake would not become impoverished (Simoons, 1998).  In both countries, people washed their mandrake regularly in water or red wine, clothed it in silk or velvet, fed it and gave it drink twice a day and stored it in an upholstered box (Simoons, 1998).  They also believed that money placed beside a planted mandrake would increase or double (Simoons, 1998).  Also in France, the mandrake was considered a special elf called a main de gloire (Thiselton-Dyer, 1889).  Whoever found one of these mains de gloire was to give him food everyday and he would bring good fortune otherwise the main de gloire would cause the finder to die (Thiselton-Dyer, 1889).  In Saintonge, Bay of Biscay, France, fisherman would wear necklaces and bracelets of mandrake to prevent accidents (Simoons, 1998).  In Germany the mandrake was made into little idles (Thiselton-Dyer, 1889) and were kept in sealed glass bottles because they were believed to be familiar spirits that would bring good fortune and prosperity to the household (Simoons, 1998).  But the magic of the mandrake was also feared.

Due to the Christian fear of the mandrake the writers of the Bible when writing the Song of Solomon lists plants that are associated with the Virgin Mary: grapevines, apples, figs and pomegranates.  Mandrakes are decidedly not on the list because of their poison they are associated with poisonous women such as witches (Bennett, 1991).  Witches were those women who were learned in plant lore, the mandrake was a common ingredient in witches’ philters (Thiselton-Dyer, 1889) and ointments, which allowed witches to go on magical internal journeys (Rätsch, 1992).  Black witches practiced dark magic and white witches worked toward good, there were also half-hearted gray witches; (Gordon, 1977) the Christian Church oppressed these women equally.  In France in 1603 a woman was hanged for owning a mandrake and in Germany in 1630 three women were executed, also for possession; mandrakes were also burned by order of Franciscans (Simoons, 1998).  The mandrake was one of many plants that were dedicated to Hecate, the Greek goddess who taught magic.  Mandrake is sometimes called “Plant of Circe,” circaea, circaeum or circaeon, because Circe is one of Hecate’s two daughters (the other is Medea) who used magic brews to turn men into swine, as seen in the Odyssey by Homer (Gordon, 1977).  Another use for the mandrake was for medicine.


The mandrake was used both as a useful, healing treatment and a vicious, harmful venom.  It was thought to be a cure-all by medieval naturalist who believed it could heal everything but death (Simoons, 1998).  The roots, fruits seeds and leaves were used variously for juices, wine, oil, ointment, plaster, pills, etc. (Simoons, 1998).  Mandrake was applied externally as a painkiller, both internally and externally to treat snakebites, and internally to treat fever (Simoons, 1998).  Plasters and poultices made of mandrake were used to reduce inflammation; other mandrake mixtures were used as eye medicine, and to treat tumors, abscesses, ulcers, wounds and gout (Simoons, 1998).  Mandrake was also used as an emetic to expel phlegm, bile, menstrua or embryo (Simoons, 1998).  St. Hildegard of Bingen believed that if you had a sore foot you should eat the foot of a mandrake, if your head ached, eat the head of the plant, for neck or back problems eating the neck or back of a mandrake would restore you, etc.  (Simoons, 1998).  In many cultures the mandrake was believed to take a disease from the owner (Simoons, 1998).  The mandrake could recover from the disease if it was not well cared for but it could also pass the disease on to the next owner (Simoons, 1998).

The juice of the mandrake was used as an anti-inflammatory for the eyes and as a means to regulate the menstrual cycle (Zarcone, 2005).  According to Dioscorides, the mandrake could be used to treat insomnia and to reduce the sensitivity to pain (Zarcone, 2005).  The mandrake leaves shine brightly at night, because of this it was often associated with the moon and used to treat illnesses associated with the moon such as epilepsy and possession (lunacy) (Simoons, 1998).  In the book Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, mandrakes are the only effective cure for “petrification.”  When Hogwarts students are petrified from the indirect glare of a basilisk (a giant serpent) they are taken to Madam Pomfrey.  She uses a potion made from sliced mandrakes to cure petrified students (Beahm, 2005).


Mandrake was most commonly used as an anesthetic and a sleep agent.  The words mandros means “to sleep” and agora means “an object or substance” (Bennett, 1992).  In Roman texts, there is a place called the “Isle of Dreams,” the harbor city was called Sleep and the trees surrounding the place were poppies and mandragoras (Simoons, 1998).  In early Greek and Latin writings it is said that the mandrake was placed under the patient’s pillow to induce sleep, a concoction of the roots and dried fruit was made into sleeping pills, a mixture of mandrake with wine or vinegar was another sleep stimulator (Simoons, 1998).  Dioscorides said that the mandrake “would send people to sleep during medical procedures” (Zarcone, 2005).

Simoons writes of three stories in which the drugging power of the mandrake is prominent.  Plato wrote the first of a ship captain who’s mutinous crew drugged him and took over.  A Roman soldier and author told the second story of a soldier named Maharbal who led his troops into Africa to end a rebellion.  Marharbal knew of the African’s fondness for wine and staged a minor skirmish before retreating.  He left baggage and some mandrake wine behind, which the Africans drank.  When all the Africans were asleep Marharbal returned and took them prisoner.  Polyaenus, a Macedonian who lived in Rome wrote the third story in which Caesar escaped his kidnappers using mandrake.  Caesar had been kidnapped by pirates and requested to send a message to his troops demanding ransom.  His soldiers brought many treasures, including mandrake wine, to barter for Caesar’s life.  The pirates drank the wine and fell asleep allowing Caesar to escape with all the treasures and his troops.  To contrast these healing medicinal uses there are also harmful medicinal uses or side-effects of usage.

Symptoms from ingestion of a tincture in a 19th century study included pupil dilation, vision enlargement and confusion, exaggeration of sound, brain fullness, hysterical excitement (Simoons, 1998).  A Welsh saying states that a person who uproots a mandrake (black byrony) will die within a year, while groaning, raving or reciting prayers for having committed the offense.  (Simoons, 1998)  An Arabic belief was that sufficient quantities could bring elation and agitation to the point of insanity (Simoons, 1998).  A Persian belief was if you give an unaware person mandrake they would develop a violent passion.  If you add some mandrake to lemon juice or curdled milk the person will go insane (Simoons, 1998).  In Southern Slovakia they thought that if a mandrake were cut open while being dug up the digger would go insane (Simoons, 1998).  Even today in Romania some people believe the mandrake brings madness (Simoons, 1998).  Other symptoms include increased blood pressure, an increase or decrease in muscle tonus and a decrease in secretion activity like saliva and gastric juices (Hanus, 2007).

From the time it was introduced to Dioscorides by the Greek goddess of discovery (Thiselton, 1889) to present day when the mandrake is still considered sacred among Bedouins of Israel (Rätsch, 2005), the mandrake has had it’s ups and downs in human culture.  The mandrake is the oldest known narcotic plant (Rushman, 1996).  The fruit was found in the tomb of Tut Ankh Amun (Gordon, 1977) meaning it was important to that Pharaoh.  The decline of the mandrake can be attributed to the availability of better painkillers and to the fact that the claims about its powers were never tested or confirmed (Simoons, 1998).  Phillip Miller discovered that the mandrake did not scream when pulled up (Gordon, 1977), dogs were no longer needed and the magic of the plant was lost.  Soon after his discovery the mandrake became a mere good luck charm (Gordon, 1977).  After the mandrake was removed from the English pharmacopoeia in 1746 it was never restored.  In modern medicine it is completely obsolete and considered only in folk medicine (Simoons, 1998).

Today mandrakes are still found hanging on the walls in Palestinian houses, but the meaning is unknown.   Both the use of a dog and a pole to dig up a mandrake were used in Italy (Zarcone, 2005) and in various Germanic countries the pole method was used within the last century (Zarcone, 2005).  The only medical use for mandrake today is that it is found in many eye drops that are used to paralyze the eye muscle and dilate the pupil (Kramer, 2007).  The former magic and mystery surrounding the mandrake, which made it so popular in so many cultures, is now gone.  This may not prove the mandrake to be evil but it is certainly no longer useful or good.

Literature Cited 

Beahm, G.  (2005).  Fact Fiction and Folklore in Harry Potter’s World.  Charlottesville, VA: Hampton Roads Publishing Company Inc.  Pg. 185-186
Bennett, J.  (1991).  Lilies of the hearth.  Toronto, Canada: Camden House Publishing.  Pg. 65-66 & 74
Gordon, L.  (1977).  Green magic.  New York City, New York: The Viking Press.  Pg. 36, 50, 97-99 & 102
Hanus, OL.,  Rezanka, T.,  Spizek, J.,  Dembitsky, VM.  (2005).  Substances isolated from the Mandragora species.  Phytochemistry, 66.20, 2408-2417
Kramer, MJ.,  (2007).  Harry Potter’s Garden.  National Geographic, 212.2, 32
Rätsch, C.  (1992).  The dictionary of sacred and magical plants, London, Great Britain: Prism Press.  Pg. 121-124
Rushman, GB., Davies, NJH. Atkinson, RS., (1996). A short history of anesthesia: the first 150 years. Cornwall: Reed Educational and Professional Publishing LTD.
Simoons, FJ.  (1998).  Plants of life, plants of death.  Madison, Wisconsin: The University of Wisconsin Press.  Pg. 101-136
Thiselton-Dyer, TF. (1889).  Folklore of plants.  New York City, New York: D. Appleton and Company.  Pg. 101, 198, 271, 317-318
Thompson, CJS.  (1968).  The mystic mandrake.  New Hyde Park, New York: University Books
Zarcone, T.  (2005).  The myth of the mandrake, the ‘plant-human’.  Diogenes, 52.3, 115-129

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith is a somewhat biographical coming-of-age story about living in Williamsburg, Brooklyn in the early 1900s. Mary Frances Nolan – Francie – is the central character and I was addicted to her from the start. I was surprised at how quickly I became fascinated with Francie. As a young girl Francie is keenly observant, and sensitive to the beauty of her world. Maybe I see myself in her. All I know is this was a book that was hard to put down.

betty smith, a tree grows in brooklyn, coming of age, book review, book cover 
“There's a tree that grows in Brooklyn. Some people call it the Tree of Heaven. No matter where its seed falls, it makes a tree which struggles to reach the sky. It grows in boarded-up lots and out of neglected rubbish heaps. It grows up out of cellar gratings. It is the only tree that grows out of cement. It grows lushly . . . survives without sun, water, and seemingly without earth. It would be considered beautiful except that there are too many of it.” – Betty Smith, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn


At the opening Francie is 11 years old. She is the oldest child of Katie and Johnny Nolan. Her brother, Neeley (short for Cornelius) is 10. We are given a tour of their neighborhood as Francie runs errand for her mother, takes her daily trip to the library and watches her neighbors from the fire escape. We find out that Katie cleans houses in exchange for free rent of their apartment, and Johnny has unreliable income through waiting tables and singing.

The story then flashes back to the summer of 1900 when Katie and Johnny first meet. Katie decides she will go through any hardship just to be with Johnny when they first dance together. Within six months they are married and support themselves by working as janitors at a school. Stress begins to set in when Francie is born in December 1901 and Neeley just a year and a week later. As the stress of living in poverty and having children eats away at Johnny, he begins drinking.

Katie and Johnny are both second generation Americans. Katie’s family is a line of strong women from Austria. She has two older sisters, Sissy and Evy. Johnny, with Irish heritage, comes from a family of weak, yet talented men (he has three brothers).

Neeley and Francie start school the same year, though they are a year apart in age. Francie, a lover of learning, always looked forward to the day she could go to school but finds it to be cruel and harsh. She changes to a school where there is no discrimination against poor children, though she still makes no friends. The flashback then catches up with the beginning of the story.

The plot line continues with various events throughout Francie’s childhood. Francie’s first encounter with sex of any kind occurs around the age of 12. She comes face to face with the sex offender who has been terrorizing the neighborhood. Her mother saves her and Francie emerges relatively unscathed. Francie starts her period around this time and witnesses women of the neighborhood stoning a young girl because she became pregnant out of wedlock. This leads Francie to become more aware of the social taboos surrounding women and sexuality.

Francie gradually sees her father’s problem with alcohol, which worsens as she grows up. He is set over the edge when he is dismissed from the Union. When Johnny discovers Katie is pregnant again he weakens further and finally dies of pneumonia (and alcoholism) on Christmas Day, five months before Annie Laurie is born.

Johnny’s death changes Francie. She stops believing in God after a lifetime of Catholic faith. She stops writing the flowery compositions that had no relation to her life experiences but earned her high marks in English, replacing them with “sordid” compositions about her father, which concerned her teacher.

Francie’s sensitive and caring nature is lost as she becomes more and more like her mother. Katie was once romantic and flighty, but turns hard and determined as she takes on the burden of earning money and sacrifices "luxuries," such as heat and meals, for her family.

After graduating from eighth grade, both Neeley and Francie must work because Katie cannot afford to keep them in school. Francie starts working at a factory then moves to a clippings bureau where she reads newspapers all day, learns about the world outside of Brooklyn, and desperately awaits the day she can return to high school.

Unfortunately Katie, who can only afford to send one child back to school, sends Neeley instead of Francie. Although Francie never returns to high school she does take summer college courses and with Francie’s job the Nolans are able to live more comfortably.

When the United States of America enters World War I, Francie first experiences romantic love. It comes in the form of Lee Rynor, whom she falls in love with within the first 48 hours after meeting. He leaves Francie heartbroken when he marries his fiancée before heading off to war. Then Francie discovers that she enjoys the company of Ben Blake, a boy she met in summer school.

Officer McShane, a kind older man who has admired Katie from afar (and she him), asks Katie to marry him. He says he will make it possible for Laurie to grow up without hardship in exchange for the chance to be her father. He also gives Francie and Neeley a chance to go to college. Francie gets ready to attend college at the University of Michigan with Ben and the Tree of Heaven continues to grow in her backyard.

Themes and Patterns

Poverty is major themes throughout this story. Nearly every anecdote and character deals with poverty in some way. Poverty applies not only to a lack of food and heat but also results in the growing worthlessness of Johnny and ultimately his death. Resources are limited, people are exploited, but poverty is presented as the evil, not people. Everyone is thinking of his or her own family first.

Class is another theme that Smith often shows through encounters between the lower class and people of privilege. Having money may lead to an easier life but the lovable characters are those who are or once were impoverished. The rich doctor who vaccinates Francie is presented as a villain and Francie’s English teacher, who claims to have grown up with hardship, misunderstands Francie’s compositions. Neeley and Francie pity Laurie for growing up with privilege because she will not have as much fun.

A prominent theme in this book is education. Johnny, Katie and Mary Rommely (Katie’s mother) have very different personalities, but they can all agree on one thing: education is the way out for the Nolan children. Through a combination of schooling and life lessons they lead the children out of poverty; each generation receives more education than the last.

Gender roles stands out to me as a further theme. Mary Rommely states upon the birth of Francie, “to be born a woman is to be born into a humble life of pain.” This comment can be applied to both life’s pains and the pain of childbirth. Women of all faiths and socioeconomic backgrounds experience the same pain in labor. However, all the women in this book are more than equipped to handle these pains and depicted as strong while men are generally shown as the weaker sex.

Katie and Johnny are presented with the same life choices and Katie is determined to give opportunities to her children in the face of hardship while Johnny slips into a drunken dreamworld. Francie is more eager to return to school but Katie send Neeley because both women understand that Neeley would not find a way to go back where Francie will do whatever it takes to learn more at school. Aunt Evy is independent and tough and Uncle Flittman is inadequate.

Since this is a coming-of-age tale it is only natural that a fall from innocence would be not only a theme but a motif. Francie learns more and more about the world, poverty, class, status, gender, and sex, which in turn causes her to become less and less innocent. Her appreciation of small material things as a young girl turns into her realization of their hardships. Often Francie presents her fall from innocence as feeling as if she is dreaming.

The “fall” refers to both things that brought Francie pain and things that brought her knowledge. The Tree of Heaven can be viewed as a Tree of Knowledge. The tree grows up and out of very difficult situations in the same way that Francie learns through reading and life events in order to get out of poverty.

Tree of Heaven

This symbol is most interesting to me, perhaps because I love trees so much or perhaps because the idea is appealing. The tree in the title grows only in tenement districts, because it “likes poor people.” It represents perseverance in times of hardship. When Francie is born, Katie likens her life to the tree’s: Francie will keep living no matter how sick she becomes. All over Brooklyn this tree grows where no other can and out-competes those that do. When the Nolans have a fir on their fire escape they care for it with water and manure but it dies. The Tree of Heaven that grows from the concrete in their yard was cut down and a new one grew out of it’s trunk.

The tree is abundant throughout Brooklyn and is familiar to Francie, who sees it every day. It isn’t stately like the sea or mountains majesty. It is humble, and this humility makes it all the more powerful.

When Francie leaves Brooklyn, Florrie Wendy symbolically takes her place. The tree grew for Francie, it will grow for Florrie, too, as it must have for Flossie Gaddis before Francie.

Do you agree with my analysis? What themes do you find in this story?

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

50 (or so) Date Ideas

Date night ideas, popsicle stick jar

We are BORED! Bored out of our minds. Bored with ourselves, bored with our stuff, bored with our house, bored with our day-to-day lives. Just plain bored. It's about time to spice things up around here. We want more time with each other, more time without stuff, more time away from the house, more excitement and creativity. I found an idea on Pinterest (regretfully I forgot to pin it and have no link) to fill a jar with popsicles sticks each with a date idea written on it. We went ahead and gave it a try.

First we gathered our supplies:

Date night ideas, popsicle stick jar 
multi-colored popsicle sticks, thin point Sharpies, two plastic bags (one for new ideas and one for used ideas), and sustenance

We assigned the colors of the popsicle sticks as follows:
  • Red = Things to do at home
  • Yellow = Free things
  • Green = $
  • Blue = $$$
We then started brainstorming ideas and writing them down, some examples are listed here:
  • Go to the local art museum
  • Take a brewery tour
  • Write a novel
  • Buy coloring books and color in them
  • Make a home video
  • Rent a hotel room for the night
  • etc.
Originally we were going to use bags but I found this jar in my cabinet so the new ideas were placed in it when completed (used ideas still go in a little bag).

Date night ideas, popsicle stick jar

We didn't fill in all of the popsicle sticks so we made one that says simple "Make new popsicle sticks."

For ideas for your own popsicle stick dates follow the links below.

What are some of your great date-night ideas?

Monday, July 23, 2012

Mighty Squats Challenge

Squats… it’s a horrible word, but a wonderful workout especially if you want a nice round butt (yoga pants can help with this as well). Surprisingly, I watch this video (and do the workout, I swear) every other day. Cassey Ho is super (impossibly) peppy and also inspirational.  I’ve watched (and done, I swear) her other videos available on YouTube and her blog.

If you like the song Call Me Maybe by Carly Rae Jepsen (or at least think it’s catchy like I do) then this squats challenge is strangely quite enjoyable. AND it only takes about six minutes, BUT if you want to skip to the workout it starts at 31 seconds and ends at about four minutes, SO the workout is actually only about three minutes and 30 seconds long... NO BREAKS!


Do you enjoy squats? How do you tone your butt and thighs?