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OpenLearn Live: 18th August 2016

Updated Thursday 18th August 2016

What's the stuff that gymnasts put on their hands? How is Australia helping Japan identify the dead of the Second World War? How is Park Hill changing? Learning and research from across the day.

OpenLearn Live brings the strands of learning and research together into your world. This page will be updated across the day.

Yesterday, we caught up with the Southern Asian countries in the Olympics, recounted tree rings and discovered a quirk of Scottish politics

On this day last year, we considered the politics of Laibach, the Sri Lankan elections, and met a tree that survived a tsunami

See the complete collection of OpenLearn Live


Today's posts


The new Park Hill

BBC News has been to see the changes at Park Hill in Sheffield:

Four years ago, OpenLearn told the story of Park Hill from the 19th to the early 21st century:

Approved in 1957, Sheffield Replanned (1945) described the area as ‘an escarpment with really magnificent possibilities [to] improve out of all recognition . . . a close-packed mass of insanitary back-to-back slums and other unfit housing, clinging precariously to the hillside, mingled with outworn, industrial buildings and begrimed with the smoke of the railway and City centre [transformed to] create a public open space [to] provide a new green wedge visible from many parts of the City Centre.

Explore Park Hill, Sheffield

At the turn of the century, OpenLearn had featured Park Hill as part of our series exploring Modernity:

Park Hill is one of the most spectacular examples of new approaches to communal living in post-war Britain. Consisting of 995 dwellings, and housing over two thousand people, it occupies an entire hill overlooking Sheffield city centre, and is built on a slope, so increases in height as the hill slopes away. The estate consists of huge snake-like blocks which contain the duplex apartments and the estate's famous 'streets in the sky', (based on the Smithsons' Golden Lane Housing plan of 1952), a bold attempt to preserve the communal benefits of street-life.

Read From Here To Modernity: Park Hill


Identifying the Japanese war dead of Cowra

Still in Australia, a new project has been launched to identfy and catalogue the 524 Japanese war dead buried at the Cowra Japanese War Cemetery. It's not a simple task:

Since most were using false names to avoid the deep shame of being captured alive, identifying them has been problematic.

The project is based on a proposal, including by Japanologists in Australia, to research materials and documents related to the cemetery to build such a database.

Read the full report at the Japan Times: Database project launched to identify Japanese buried at Australian war cemetery

Most of the Japanese buried at Cowra perished during an attempt to escape - a belated attempt to apply the Japanese Army belief that it is better to die than be captured. It was a horrific night:

About 2 a.m. [on August 4th, 1944] a Japanese ran to the camp gates and shouted what seemed to be a warning to the sentries. Then a Japanese bugle sounded. A sentry fired a warning shot. More sentries fired as three mobs of prisoners, shouting "Banzai", began breaking through the wire, one mob on the northern side, one on the western and one on the southern.

They flung themselves across the wire with the help of blankets. They were armed with knives, baseball bats, clubs studded with nails and hooks, wire stilettos and garotting cords.

The Australians on guard duty were now firing into the groups  f prisoners. The men not on guard, most of whom were sleeping fully clothed with rifles and 50 rounds beside them, raced out to reinforce the guard. The strongest group of Japanese—about 400, broke through the wire on the north-west.

Here Privates Hardy and Jones punched their way through the prisoners, manned a Vickers gun and fired it until they were knifed and clubbed to death.

The Japanese swung the gun round to fire on the Australians' huts but it jammed, and its Japanese crew was killed. No Japanese succeeded in crossing the road that bisected the compound from east to west.

Here the fire was so deadly that soon more than 200 Japanese were sheltering in a deep drain from which they emerged at dawn to surrender. Meanwhile Japanese who had remained in the camp had set fire to every building in it.

Read the full account at the Australian War Memorial site: The Prison Break At Cowra

Australia and Japan aren't the only nations trying to do the right thing for people killed in conflict

Watch Digging Up Spain's dead


Australia on fire

Benjamin Wilkie writes for Meanjin, the Brisbane-based literary magazine, on the relationshop between Australia and the fires which flare, ravage and rage across its land:

At one point last summer, like many summers before it, standing in the main street of Hamilton you couldn’t see the Grampians through the smoke. But the Grampians are no stranger to fire. The Scottish explorer Thomas Mitchell, who was one of the first Europeans to set eyes on Gariwerd, observed in 1848 that ‘Fire, grass and kangaroos, and human inhabitants, seem all dependent on each other for existence in Australia, for any one of these being wanting, the others could no longer continue.’ The first Australians came to a continent tolerant of fire and transformed it into a world with a preference, almost an addiction, for fire. The Indigenous Australians were a fire people. At about the same time Mitchell remade this landscape as a noble Scottish mountain range and renamed it the Grampians, an alliance between humans and fire came undone. Only now are we starting to reforge this partnership.

Read the full article at Meanjin: This continent of smoke

At OpenLearn: Can bushfires be good for nature?


Kitbag: Gym chalk

This week, we're exploring the science behind some of the pieces of sporting equipment on use at the Olympics. Yesterday, we plucked at swim caps. Today, we're heading for the gym, and looking at that big box of white powder. What's with gym chalk?

A gymnast chalks her hands Creative commons image Icon Two Wings under Creative Commons BY 4.0 license

It's almost ritualistic - before the athletes reach for the rings or the bars, they powder their hands. It's not really that much of a mystery why, either. In fact, rather than digging into scientific journals, for this one you need no higher authority than the Radio Times:

Chalk does two important things for gymnasts when they're competing on bars, rings etc, according to the International Federation of Gymnastics. First, it allows a gymnast to swing and turn around the bars without being slowed down by sweaty hands. Second, it helps them maintain good grip and avoid slipping.

And the chalk is important. So much so that many teams arriving at Rio took their own chalk with them. NBC Olympics spoke to America's Sam Mikulak after he'd been to Rio on a recce:

“It was just nice to get acclimated and understand the small things that come with competing in South America,” he said shortly after the trip. “It’s a little warmer, little more humid, how to handle these things, chalking things up differently.

“We have to bring our own chalk because their chalk’s a little different… for some reason, it’s magnesium carbonate. When you go to South America it just feels more like baking powder than it does chalk. It’s just lighter, fluffier than I normally would want it to be.”

It’s common among gymnasts from other countries, too.

“I know the Japan team definitely brings their own chalk,” Leyva said. “It’s just a personal preference thing. The thing is, you might go to a competition and the chalk might be completely different from what you’re used to. And you’ll feel uncomfortable and you might be slipping.”

Oh yes. It's not chalk like you you might find in your garden. It's not even chalk in the real sense of the word. OutsideOnline explains why magnesium carbonate is better than calcium carbonate - not just for gymnasts, but climbers and weightlifters too:

There's a reason you can't simply swap magnesium carbonate for cheaper blackboard or sidewalk chalk. "Magnesium carbonate is insoluble in water, so it doesn't dissolve,” says chemistry expert and Rice University Professor of Materials Science Andrew R. Barron. “But while calcium carbonate—or old-fashioned, traditional chalk—absorbs moisture, it also dissolves in water.” So if you’re lifting weights with sidewalk chalk on your hands, it’ll just run right off as soon as you start sweating. Not so with the high-end stuff.   

But magnesium carbonate comes with its own set of problems. According to Blair-Coyle, extreme dryness and excess sweat are the most serious issues for climbers. "I've tried a lot of different types of chalk and...they’d either dry out my hands, or my skin, wouldn't last as long when I was climbing, or didn't give me the friction I needed on a hold," she says.    

So scientists and athletes have turned to new additives like limestone, essential oils, and drying agents to make "super chalk" blends for weight lifters and climbers. The next time you're chalking up before a strength training session or climbing practice, remember—not all chalk is created equal.

And although chalk can make for a safer experience, there are health and safety rules published by Gymnastics UK which relate to its use:

Chalk often used to absorb perspiration and can assist with preventing blisters by reducing the friction between the ands and apparatus.

Chalk should be kept to a suitable amount. Too much chalk can caused irritation to the hands and may even cause excess powder to get into the gymnasts, or their spotter’s eye.

And some people like to add something a bit special to the chalk. Gizmodo has an eye-popping list:

Olympic gymnasts use any and all forms of hand goop, from honey to coke and beer and sugar to melted gummy bears and a special concoction created by a chemist and more. And the crazy thing is, it's completely legal.

If you find yourself about to congratulate a winning Olympic gymnast, you might want to go for a hug rather than a handshake. Unless you've got a packet of wet wipes.

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