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Useless Facts

Imagine that you bored a large hole from the surface of the earth, through the center, and out the other side. According to a physicist, if you jumped into the hole, it would take you about 38 minutes to “fall” to the other side.

During the construction of the Golden Gate Bridge in 1936 and 1937, 11 workers died in falls, and 19 were saved by safety nets. The survivors dubbed themselves the Halfway to Hell Club.

Lemons float in water, but limes sink. The reason: lemons are slightly less dense than water, and limes are slightly more dense.

The practice of carving jack-o’-lanterns originated in Ireland. The Irish began carving them several centuries ago out of turnips and potatoes. Irish immigrants to America applied the technique to pumpkins.

Turnip

The Norse explorer Leif Erikson is the first known European to set foot on continental North America. He landed somewhere on the coast of Newfoundland or Labrador in the year 1000. Erikson made the voyage because an Icelandic merchant told him he had sighted land west of Greenland in 986, but didn’t make landfall.

But there is evidence that Erikson wasn’t the first. When he reached the coast, he rescued two shipwrecked men whom the historic record does not name, but implies were European.

When the Star Trek TV series was in development in the early 1960s, the idea was for the Spock character to be from Mars and to have red skin. By the time filming began, Spock’s heritage was “human-Vulcan,” and his skin was yellow-tinged. The idea of red was dropped because it looked black on a black-and-white TV.

Sean Connery played Agent 007 in the first five James Bond movies, and he wore a toupee in all five. Connery began going bald as a teenager.

The narwhal is a medium-sized, Arctic-dwelling whale notable for (1) its long, unicorn-like tusk and (2) the absence of a dorsal fin. Adult narwhals are 13-18 feet long, not counting the tusk. The tusk is an elongated tooth like those of elephants, walruses, and pigs.

Narwhal

Capoeira is a form of martial art developed in the 1700s by escaped African slaves hiding in the jungles of Brazil. It incorporates a variety of fast, complex kicks and spins similar to acrobatics and dance moves. Capoeira was a highly effective fighting technique, and in the past, the government made its practice a crime. Today. It is Brazil’s official national sport, although soccer is more popular.

The Biltmore House in Asheville, North Carolina, which has 255 rooms and occupies an estate of 125,000 acres, is the largest residence ever built for a private citizen. It was completed in 1895 as the home of George Washington Vanderbilt II, who needed a way to spend some of his money. It was opened to the public in 1930.

An agelast (adge-uh-lest) is a person who never laughs and seems to have no sense of humor.

Armadillos (from the Spanish for “little armored one”) are small, timid mammals related to anteaters and sloths. They have sharp claws used to dig for insects and to make dens.

The nine-banded armadillo usually seen in the U.S. is about the size of a housecat. The largest species, the giant armadillo, is the size of a small pig. The smallest species, the pink fairy armadillo of central Argentina, is about four inches long and weighs only a few ounces.

Pink fairy armadillo

 

Quotes o’ the Day

Don’t raise your voice. Improve your argument.

— Desmond Tutu

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Remembrance of things past is not necessarily the remembrance of things as they were.

— Marcel Proust

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I may not have gone where I intended to go, but I think I have ended up where I needed to be.

— Douglas Adams

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Those who say it can’t be done should get out of the way of those who are doing it.

— Anne Lamott

Tutu-D

Tutu

Lamott-A

Lamott

 

Holding Up

Friends, I have made peace with the fact that I am now an old dude. The evidence is clear, even though it’s weird to think of myself as being, like, an old geezer.

In many respects, I don’t feel that old. In my head, I’m the same Rocky Smith I’ve been since about age 10. The inner me has changed very little.

On the other hand, I’m not as mentally sharp as when I was younger. Sometimes, my brain plays tricks on me, like instructing me to go to the kitchen, then making me forget why I went there. Fortunately, I’m retired and pose no real danger to anyone.

I also show plenty of signs of physical wear. Creeping arthritis, a touch of glaucoma, a balding pate. I’ve clearly lost a step, even though I’m — knock on wood — still active and in relatively good health.

But I digress. The fact is, I’m about to turn 77, and that’s old.

Which is why, when an attendant at Kroger paid me a compliment regarding my age recently, it was quite satisfying.

When I make a run to Kroger, I always use the self-checkout because it’s faster. Last week, my shopping included a bottle of Pinot Noir, which requires an ID check.

Checking my ID is ludicrous, of course. For the last half-century, my appearance has confirmed that I am over 18, but Kroger has its stupid rules.

I scanned the bottle, and the machine beeped and announced that help was on the way. I took out my wallet and waited.

A 40-ish female employee appeared. “Can I see your ID, sir?” she asked cheerily.

I held up the wallet so she could see my license.

“January 26th, 1943,” she intoned and turned to enter the date on the screen of the scanner.

“I’d rather you didn’t say that out loud,” I told her. “I’m sensitive about my age.”

She turned and looked at me, pursed her lips, and tapped her chin in thought.

“Let me tell you something,” she said with great seriousness. “I check IDs for a living. I’ve seen the IDs of half the adults in Jefferson. I know when they were born.

“I see people every day who look older than you, and act older than you, and they’re a decade younger than you. Sometimes two.”

I was appropriately speechless.

“Take it from an expert, sir,” she said, “you’re holding up nicely. Count your blessings.”

I managed to thank her in a bumbling, awkward fashion and went on my way.

I’m still aglow.

Pinot Noir

… From the compliment, not the Pinot Noir.

 

Tune o’ the Day

Roy Orbison (1936-1988) was an unlikely guy to become a rock star. But his operatic voice was captivating — angelic, otherworldly — and he sang sad songs about unrequited love. (“Pretty Woman” being the exception because he got the girl.)

Most of Orbison’s love songs were melodramatic, sometimes cheesy, yet still beautiful and memorable. A few examples: “Only the Lonely,” “In Dreams,” “Running Scared,” “Dream Baby.”

Then there is the classic “Crying.” Orbison at the top of his game.

Orbison R

Crying

By Roy Orbison, 1962
Written by Roy Orbison

I was all right for a while.
I could smile for a while.
But I saw you last night.
You held my hand so tight
As you stopped to say hello.

Oh, you wished me well.
You couldn’t tell
That I’d been crying
Over you.
Crying
Over you.

When you said so long,
Left me standing all alone,
Alone and crying.
Crying.
Crying.
Crying.

It’s hard to understand,
But the touch of your hand
Can start me crying.

I thought that I was over you,
But it’s true, so true:
I love you even more
Than I did before,
But, darling, what can I do?


For you don’t love me,
And I’ll always be
Crying
Over you.
Crying
Over you.

Yes, now you’re gone,
And from this moment on,
I’ll be crying,
Crying,
Crying,
Crying,
Yeah, crying,
Crying
Over you.

 

The Questions…

1. Whales are classified as either baleen whales, which feed on krill and plankton, or toothed whales, which hunt prey (orcas, dolphins, porpoises). To what land creatures are whales most closely related?

2. Which came first, the band the Rolling Stones or the magazine Rolling Stone?

3. In the mid-1600s, lemonade vendors in Venice began selling a new drink that purported to offer great medicinal benefits. What was it?

4. Which planet in the solar system is the hottest?

5. Pogonophobia is the fear of what?

The Answers…

1. Hippopotamuses.

2. The band was started in 1962, the magazine in 1967. Both are named after the 1948 song “Rollin’ Stone” by Muddy Waters.

3. Coffee, a new sensation from the Muslim world.

4. Venus. Mercury is closer to the sun and gets more direct heat, but it has no atmosphere to hold the heat. Venus has a dense atmosphere of carbon dioxide that traps heat (the greenhouse effect thing). The surface temperature on Venus is a constant 865 degrees F.

5. Beards.

Hippo

Beards

 

Seven Rules

Well, a new year has come charging in, like it or not, ready for it or not. I say it’s a good time to take a deep breath, get a grip, and reassess — to make sure your mental health and coping skills are in proper working order.

I have a great place to start. It’s the “7 Rules of Life,written bynobody seems to know.

The Seven Rules thing has become a meme that is ubiquitous online. Some versions are called “7 Cardinal Rules for Life.

The wording of the rules varies quite a bit, but all the versions reflect the same basic sentiments: relax, don’t worry so much, be yourself, and remember that time heals.

Ordinarily, I react to stuff like this with an eyeroll, but in this case, the advice is genuinely positive and helpful.

Here’s one version out of the many.

Seven Rules

Relax, don’t worry so much, be yourself, and remember that time heals.

Wisdom you can take to the bank.

 

 

Blood Lines

Author Michael Shaara (1928-1988) is best known for his novel about the Battle of Gettysburg, “The Killer Angels,” which won a Pulitzer Prize in 1975. But Shaara also wrote science fiction.

His father was an immigrant from Italy named “Sciarra,” which a bonehead clerk at Ellis Island recorded phonetically.

A graduate of Rutgers, Shaara was at various times a paratrooper, merchant seaman, police officer, and amateur boxer — who ended up teaching literature at Florida State and writing a lot of memorable stuff.

———

Man of Distinction

By Michael Shaara
Published in Galaxy Science Fiction, October 1956

The remarkable distinction of Thatcher Blitt did not come to the attention of a bemused world until late in the year 2180. Although Thatcher Blitt was, by the standards of his time, an extremely successful man financially, this was not considered real distinction. Unfortunately for Blitt, it never has been.

The history books do not record the names of the most successful merchants of the past unless they happened by chance to have been connected with famous men of the time. Thus Croesus is remembered largely for his contributions to famous Romans and successful armies. And Haym Solomon, a similarly wealthy man, would have been long forgotten had he not also been a financial mainstay of the American Revolution and consorted with famous, if impoverished, statesmen.

So if Thatcher Blitt was distinct among men, the distinction was not immediately apparent. He was a small, gaunt, fragile man who had the kind of face and bearing that are perfect for movie crowd scenes. Absolutely forgettable. Yet Thatcher Blitt was one of the foremost businessmen of his time. For he was president and founder of that noble institution, Genealogy, Inc.

Thatcher Blitt was not yet 25 when he made the discovery which was to make him among the richest men of his time. His discovery was, like all great ones, obvious yet profound. He observed that every person had a father.

Carrying on with this thought, it followed inevitably that every father had a father, and so on. In fact, thought Blitt, when you considered the matter rightly, everyone alive was the direct descendant of untold numbers of fathers, down through the ages, all descending, one after another, father to son. And so backward, unquestionably, into the unrecognizable and perhaps simian fathers of the past.

This thought, on the face of it not particularly profound, struck young Blitt like a blow. He saw that since each man had a father, and so on and so on, it ought to be possible to construct the genealogy of every person now alive. In short, it should be possible to trace your family back, father by father, to the beginning of time.

And of course it was. For that was the era of the time scanner. And with a time scanner, it would be possible to document your family tree with perfect accuracy. You could find out exactly from whom you had sprung.

And so Thatcher Blitt made his fortune. He saw clearly at the beginning what most of us see only now, and he patented it. He was aware not only of the deep-rooted sense of snobbishness that exists in many people, but also of the simple yet profound force of curiosity.

Who exactly, one says to oneself, was my forty-times-great-great-grandfather? A Roman Legionary? A Viking? A pyramid builder? One of Xenophon’s Ten Thousand? Or was he, perhaps (for it is always possible), Alexander the Great?

Thatcher Blitt had a product to sell. And sell he did, for other reasons that he alone had noted at the beginning. The races of mankind have twisted and turned with incredible complexity over the years; the numbers of people have been enormous.

With thirty thousand years in which to work, it was impossible that there was not, somewhere along the line, a famous ancestor for everybody. A minor king would often suffice, or even a general in some forgotten army. And if these direct ancestors were not enough, it was fairly simple to establish close blood kinship with famous men. The blood lines of Man, you see, begin with a very few people. In all of ancient Greece, in the time of Pericles, there were only a few thousand families.

Seeing all this, Thatcher Blitt became a busy man. It was necessary not only to patent his idea, but to produce the enormous capital needed to found a large organization. The cost of the time scanner was at first prohibitive, but gradually that obstacle was overcome, only for Thatcher to find that the government for many years prevented him from using it. Yet Blitt was indomitable. And eventually, after years of heart-rending waiting, Genealogy, Inc. began operations.

It was a tremendous success. Within months, the very name of the company and its taut slogan, “An Ancestor for Everybody,” became household words. There was but one immediate drawback. It soon became apparent that, without going back very far into the past, it was sometimes impossible to tell who was really the next father in line. The mothers were certain, but the fathers were something else again. This was a ponderable point.

But Blitt refused to be discouraged. He set various electronic engineers to work on the impasse and a solution was found. An ingenious device which tested blood electronically through the scanner — based on the different sine waves of the blood groups — saved the day.

That invention was the last push Genealogy, Inc. was ever to need. It rolled on to become one of the richest and, for a long while, most exclusive corporations in the world.

Yet it was still many years before Thatcher Blitt himself had time to rest. There were patent infringements to be fought, new developments in the labs to be watched, new ways to be found to make the long and arduous task of father-tracing easier and more economical. Hence he was well past sixty when he at last had time to begin considering himself.

He had become by this time a moderately offensive man. Surrounded as he had been all these years by pomp and luxury, by impressive names and extraordinary family trees, he had succumbed at last. He became unbearably name-conscious.

He began by regrouping his friends according to their ancestries. His infrequent parties were characterized by his almost Parliamentarian system of seating. No doubt, all this had been in Thatcher Blitt to begin with — it may well be, in perhaps varying quantities, in all of us — but it grew with him, prospered with him. Yet in all those years he never once inspected his own forebears.

You may well ask, was he afraid? One answers, one does not know. But at any rate, the fact remains that Thatcher Blitt, at the age of 67, was one of the few rich men in the world who did not know who exactly their ancestors had been.

And so, at last, we come to the day when Thatcher Blitt was sitting alone in his office, one languid hand draped vacantly over his brow, listening with deep satisfaction to the hum and click of the enormous operations which were going on in the building around him.

What moved him that day remains uncertain. Perhaps it was that, from where he was sitting, he could see row upon row of action pictures of famous men which had been taken from his time scanners. Or perhaps it was simply that this profound question had been gnawing at him all these years, deeper and deeper, and on this day broke out into the light.

But whatever the reason, at 11:02 that morning, he leaped vitally from his chair. He summoned Cathcart, his chief assistant, and gave him the immortal command.

“Cathcart!” he grated, stung to the core of his being. “Who am I?”

Cathcart rushed off to find out.

There followed some of the most taut and fateful days in the brilliant history of Genealogy, Inc. Father-tracing is, of course, a painstaking business. But it was not long before word had begun to filter out to interested people.

The first interesting discovery made was a man called Blott, in eighteenth century England. (No explanation was ever given for the name’s alteration from Blott to Blitt. Certain snide individuals took this to mean that the name had been changed as a means to avoid prosecution, or some such, and immediately began making light remarks about the Blotts on old Blitt’s escutcheon.) This Blott had the distinction of having been a wineseller of considerable funds.

This reputedly did not sit well with Thatcher Blitt. Merchants, he snapped, however successful, are not worthy of note. He wanted empire builders. He wanted, at the very least, a name he had heard about. A name that appeared in the histories.

His workers furiously scanned back into the past.

Months went by before the next name appeared. In 9th century England, there was a wandering minstrel named John (last name unprintable) who achieved considerable notoriety as a ballad singer, before dying an unnatural death in the boudoir of a lady of high fashion.

Although the details of this man’s life were of extreme interest, they did not impress the old man. He was, on the contrary, rather shaken. A minstrel. And a rogue to boot.

There were shakeups in Genealogy, Inc. Cathcart was replaced by a man named Jukes, a highly competent man despite his interesting family name. Jukes forged ahead full steam past the birth of Christ (no relation). But he was well into ancient Egypt before the search began to take on the nature of a crisis.

Up until then, there was simply nobody. Or to be more precise, nobody but nobodies. It was incredible, all the laws of chance were against it, but there was, actually, not a single ancestor of note. And no way of faking one, for Thatcher Blitt couldn’t be fooled by his own methods.

What there was was simply an unending line of peasants, serfs, an occasional foot soldier or leather worker. Past John the ballad-singer, there was no one at all worth reporting to the old man.

This situation would not continue, of course. There were so few families for men to spring from. The entire Gallic nation, for example, a great section of present-day France, sprang from the family of one lone man in the north of France in the days before Christ. Every native Frenchman, therefore, was at least the son of a king. It was impossible for Thatcher Blitt to be less.

So the hunt went on from day to day, past ancient Greece, past Jarmo, past the wheel and metals and farming and on even past all civilization, outward and backward into the cold primordial wastes of northern Germany.

And still there was nothing. Though Jukes lived in daily fear of losing his job, there was nothing to do but press on. In Germany, he reduced Blitt’s ancestor to a slovenly little man who was one of only three men in the entire tribe, or family, one of three in an area which now contains millions. But Blitt’s ancestor, true to form, was simply a member of the tribe. As was his father before him.

Yet onward it went. Westward back into the French caves, southward into Spain and across the unrecognizable Mediterranean into a verdant North Africa, backward in time past even the Cro-Magnons, and yet ever backward, 30,000 years, 35,000, with old Blitt reduced now practically to gibbering and still never an exceptional forebear.

There came a time when Jukes had at last, inevitably, to face the old man. He had scanned back as far as he could. The latest ancestor he had unearthed for Blitt was a hairy creature who did not walk erect. And yet, even here, Blitt refused to concede.

“It may be,” he howled, “it must be that my ancestor was the first man to walk erect or light a fire — to do something.”

It was not until Jukes pointed out that all those things had been already examined and found hopeless that Blitt finally gave in. Blitt was a relative, of course, of the first man to stand erect, the man with the first human brain. But so was everybody else on the face of the Earth. There was truly nowhere else to explore. What would be found now would be only the common history of mankind.

Blitt retired to his chambers and refused to be seen.

The story went the rounds, as such stories will. And it was then at last, after 40,000 years of insignificance, that the name of Blitt found everlasting distinction. The story was picked up, fully documented, by psychologists and geneticists of the time, and inserted into textbooks as a profound commentary on the forces of heredity.

The name of Thatcher Blitt in particular has become famous, has persisted until this day. For he is the only man yet discovered, or ever likely to be discovered, with this particular distinction.

In 40,000 years of scanner-recorded history, the blood line of Blitt (or Blott) never once produced an exceptional man.

That record is unsurpassed.

Man of Distinction

Original illustration from Galaxy Science Fiction by Dick Francis.