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Posts Tagged ‘History’

Useless Facts

More “Useless Facts for Inquiring Minds.”

● Russia is massive, extending across eight time zones and bordering 14 other countries. But its economy is puny — roughly equivalent to the combined GDPs of Belgium and the Netherlands.

● The average automobile contains 30,000 parts, counting bolts and screws.

● The main ingredients of the spread Nutella are sugar, cocoa, and hazelnuts. A medium-size jar of Nutella (26 oz.) contains about 97 hazelnuts. Annually, 25 percent of the world’s hazelnut crop is used to manufacture Nutella.

● Europa, the fourth-largest of Jupiter’s 80 known moons, is slightly smaller than Earth’s Moon. Its surface is believed to be largely a crust of ice. Beneath it, scientists now think, is a liquid ocean that holds more water than all of Earth’s oceans combined.

● The first sharks evolved about 400 million years ago, which makes them 50 million years older than the earliest known trees.

● In the card game of whist, and in the game of bridge that evolved from it, a yarborough is a hand of 13 cards with none higher than a nine. The term is named for the 2nd Earl of Yarborough (1809-1897), who regularly bet 1000-1 against being dealt such a hand. He usually won; the probability of being dealt a yarborough is 1 in 1,828.

● The rubber band was invented in 1845 by Stephen Perry of the rubber manufacturer Messers Perry and Co., London.

● Polar bears have two layers of fur: a dense undercoat for insulation and a coarse, protective outer coat. Both layers are colorless. The bears appear white because the hairs are transparent, and they reflect all wavelengths of light instead of absorbing some and manifesting color. Polar bear skin is black, which absorbs sunlight for warmth. Mother Nature is a smart cookie.

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The Questions…

1. What are the names of the three Rice Krispies elves?

2. What is the most valuable residence on earth?

3. Anne Frank and her family were in hiding from 1942 to 1944 in what city?

4. What is the strongest muscle in the human body?

5. What was the duration of the age of the dinosaurs, aka the Mesozoic Era, aka the Age of Reptiles?

The Answers…

1. Snap, Crackle, and Pop.

2. Buckingham Palace in London, which is worth about $5 billion. The palace has been the official royal residence since 1837, when Queen Victoria moved in.

3. Amsterdam.

4. The jaw muscle.

5. Between 150 and 200 million years. The earliest ancestors of humans appeared only six million years ago.

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Pollen and Pollination

Every spring for a couple of weeks, my corner of the world — and probably yours — gets coated in pollen. At the same time, dried-out thingies begin raining down from the oak trees, clumping together and piling up and staining the driveway.

This year, I decided it was past time to identify those mysterious dried-out thingies. I wasn’t prepared for what I discovered.

They are called catkins, and they are the male half of oak tree reproduction. They contain pollen, which is carried by the wind to all the female oak flowers out there. Specifically, the male flowers form in the summer, produce pollen the next spring, die and dry up, and bingo.

The wind can carry the pollen many miles, but only a tiny fraction of the grains will pollinate a female and create an acorn. Further, the vast majority of acorns get eaten by animals and don’t make it to tree-hood. Nature doesn’t do pity.

The yellow coat of pollen on your car, by the way, is from pine trees, not oaks. Grains of pine pollen are large enough to be visible, but too large to bedevil your sinuses; oak and other hardwood pollen is much smaller and is the stuff that makes you sneeze and cough.

You, not me. Pollen doesn’t bother me at all.

The Power of Books

Scientist and science champion Carl Sagan, bless him, had a way with words. In 1995, one year before he died, he published The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark. In the book was the following passage.

———

For 99 percent of the tenure of humans on earth, nobody could read or write. The great invention had not yet been made.

Except for firsthand experience, almost everything we knew was passed on by word of mouth. As in the children’s game “Telephone,” over tens and hundreds of generations, information would slowly be distorted and lost.

Books changed all that.

Books, purchasable at low cost, permit us to interrogate the past with high accuracy; to tap the wisdom of our species; to understand the point of view of others, and not just those in power; to contemplate — with the best teachers — the insights painfully extracted from Nature, of the greatest minds that ever were, drawn from the entire planet and from all of our history.

They allow people long dead to talk inside our heads. Books can accompany us everywhere. Books are patient where we are slow to understand, allow us to go over the hard parts as many times as we wish, and are never critical of our lapses.

Books are key to understanding the world and participating in a democratic society.

———

That wonderful observation, I should note, came in a book.

The Oklahoma Panhandle

You’re no doubt familiar with the Oklahoma Panhandle, that odd strip of land west of the rest of the state, sticking out like the handle of a pan. But do you know the story of its origin? I didn’t either.

When the Republic of Texas declared its independence from Mexico in 1821, the panhandle region was part of Texas. But when Texas applied to enter the Union in 1845, there was a problem. The U.S. prohibited slavery north of the parallel 36°30′ north. The panhandle strip is north thereof.

Texas (sigh) insisted on being a slave state, so it surrendered its claim to the panhandle. For the rest of the century, the area was a no-man’s land between states, the home of assorted cattle ranches, homesteaders, and outlaws. Finally, the panhandle was tacked onto Oklahoma when it became a state in 1907.

The panhandle region is 168 miles east to west and 34 miles north to south. It consists of three minimally-populated rectangular counties, the westernmost of which, Cimarron County, borders Kansas, Texas, Colorado, and New Mexico.

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More “Useless Facts for Inquiring Minds.”

● When King James V of Scotland died in 1542, his daughter Mary Stuart became Queen of Scotland — at the age of six days old.

● Cheese is the world’s most commonly shoplifted food item.

● Every year, scientists discover about 18,000 new species of plants and animals, half of which are insects.

● In 1887, a partial skeleton of the three-horned dinosaur Triceratops was unearthed by geologist George L. Cannon near Denver. Dinosaurs being a bit of a new concept in those days, Cannon thought the bones were those of an especially large and unusual bison. Only after a third and more complete skeleton was found did Cannon see his mistake.

● The National Park System consists of 423 sites, 63 of which are full-blown National Parks.

Bonasa umbellus, the ruffed grouse, is a game bird native to Canada and the eastern US. Umbellus is Latin for umbrella or sunshade, referring to the bird’s showy neck plumage. Bonasa comes from the Latin words bonus (good)and assum (roasted).

● An ant can lift about 50 times its own weight.

● The word orangutan comes from the Malaysian words orang, meaning “person,” and hutan, meaning “forest.” It usually is translated as “man of the forest.”

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Corruption

Corruption in government — all forms of government at every level — is inevitable. The reason: human nature.

Consider how the world’s major political/economic systems function, in theory.

Communism

Under the doctrine of communism, private ownership is forbidden. Rich big shots do not run things, and the concept of “I’m for me first” is off the table.

Instead, the economy is owned jointly by the people. Government is tasked with overseeing the distribution of resources and making sure everyone is treated fairly and equally.

There is a fatal flaw, however, in that last part about the role of government. No government ever, anywhere, has managed to handle the oversight as intended. For that reason, communism simply never works except in theory.

Nothing says it can’t work. Nothing says government officials can’t do the job. In truth, plenty of people — in all kinds of economic systems — want to do the right thing. But they cannot succeed because too many of their fellow officials use their positions for personal gain or other nefarious reasons. Inevitably, corruption wins.

Socialism

The doctrine of socialism is a sort of communism lite. It is a less fire-breathing, more civilized approach to achieving economic and social equality. Some variations of socialism even tolerate a smidgen of capitalism.

When Marx and Engels wrote the Communist Manifesto in 1848, they described communism as a working-class movement designed to dismantle the power structure. As for socialism, Engels dismissed it completely.

He called socialism a middle-class movement touted by “social quacks who, by all manner of tinkering, professed to redress, without any danger to capital and profit, all sorts of social grievances.” Socialists just weren’t bloodthirsty enough for Engels.

Capitalism

Capitalism is equally flawed, and maybe more susceptible to corruption than other political-economic systems. Under American capitalism, the ruling elite have become obscenely rich, and the non-rich fight over the scraps.

Today in the United States, virtually every level of government, local, state, and national, is owned by special interests. Most people who run for public office know perfectly well how the system works, and they intend to use it for personal or political advantage.

Even good people with good intentions know the system is rotten. Maybe they should be admired for their tenacity, but they can’t win. In time, the American form of capitalism will implode and be replaced by… something nasty and authoritarian, most likely.

Every form of governance since the Stone Age, I suspect, eventually succumbed to corruption and was replaced by whatever evolved next.

The Rise of Autocracy

On paper, five nations formally are communist-controlled: China, Cuba, North Korea, Laos, and Vietnam. Russia is by no means a communist country. It’s an ordinary dictatorship that created a toothless, phony opposition and thereby claims to be democratic.

In the six countries aforementioned, de facto dictatorships arose because of the totalitarian power of the governments. All six have flipped from the left wing to the right and are, in fact, more fascistic than communistic.

Which helps explain why conservatives in the US, who for decades have bellowed about the evils of communism, have decided that Putin is a savvy, admirable guy.

You’ve probably heard them say, Well, if Putin wants Ukraine, why should we care? After all, Ukraine was part of Russia once.

It’s true that both countries once were part of the USSR, but things change. Empires rise and fall, and actually, Ukraine was here first. It emerged in the Middle Ages, and at one time, all of Russia was part of it.

But, facts and conservatives, like oil and water, do not mix readily.

Nothing is a bigger turn-on to the average Republican than an autocrat flexing his muscles, The soul of every right-winger craves a dominating father figure.

A corrupt one will do.

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Useless Facts

More “Useless Facts for Inquiring Minds.”

● The first novel depicting time travel was “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court” by Mark Twain, 1889.

● Alexander the Great had a favorite horse, Bucephalus, which meant “ox-head” because of a branding mark depicting the head of an ox. Bucephalus died in battle in 326 BC. Alexander buried him with full honors and founded the city of Bucephala in Pakistan as a memorial.

● All nine species of the flowering plant Datura are poisonous if eaten and can cause fever, hallucinations, psychosis, and even death. Datura also is known as thornapple, jimsonweed, devil’s weed, and hell’s bells.

● In October 1961, the Museum of Modern Art in New York opened an exhibit featuring works by Henri Matisse, and they managed to hang one of them upside down. It remained that way for 47 days until an observant visitor informed MOMA of the error. To be fair, the work in question, “Le Bateau” (the boat) is a simple paper cutout depicting a sailboat and its reflection, so…

● The Akita dog breed originated in Japan in the 1500s. In the past, Akitas were used to hunt elk, bear, and wild boar and often were the companions of samurai warriors.

● In informal use, a jiffy is a rough measure of time that means “real quick” or “right away.” Technically, however, a jiffy is a precise unit of time: how long it takes light to travel one centimeter in a vacuum. The answer, as determined by chemist Gilbert Newton Lewis (1875-1946) in the early 1900s, is one-trillionth of a second.

● C. S. Lewis, Aldous Huxley, and John F. Kennedy all died on November 22, 1963.

● The KattenKabinet is an art museum in Amsterdam dedicated to works that depicts cats. On display are paintings, sketches, sculptures, etc. by Picasso, Toulouse-Lautrec, Rembrandt, and others. The museum was founded in 1990 by Bob Meijer in honor of his cat J. P. Morgan.

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The Questions…

1. Who led the first team of explorers that claimed to reach the North Pole?

2. How many ribs do you have?

3. What kind of rock floats in water?

4. What are the only mammals born with horns?

5. Currently, the highest-denomination bill in US currency is the $100 bill. What is the highest denomination ever printed?

The Answers…

1. American explorer Robert E. Peary led a team that claimed to have done the deed on April 6, 1909. However, many experts say he was short by about 50 miles. The first undisputed trip to the pole was a flyover in a dirigible by Roald Amundsen in 1926.

2. As a human, you have 24 ribs.

3. Pumice.

4. Giraffes.

5. In 1934, the Federal Reserve printed a series of $100,000 “gold certificates” used only for internal transactions among its dozen regional banks. The notes featured an image of Woodrow Wilson, who was President from 1913 to 1921. For its own reasons, the Fed stopped printing the notes in 1935.

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Vikings

A few years ago, I got serious about researching the Smith family tree, and I did much better than I expected. I was able to trace us back to a Danish Viking king born circa 760 AD. I stopped tracing there, but may continue at some point.

A Danish Viking 1,200 years ago. Awesome.

The truth is, I knew very little about the Vikings, beyond the fact that they were Scandinavian pirates who terrorized Europe for a time. So, like any red-blooded American, I did my research on the internet and learned some interesting stuff. Which, with luck, is accurate.

Historians mark the Viking Age as from about 790 AD to 1066 AD. Those were the Dark Ages in Europe, and most people lived in small groups — clans and fiefdoms that were subservient to, and more or less under the protection of, local strongmen.

Early on, many of the Norse clans became skilled sailors who ventured out in specialized longships. These highly-maneuverable vessels were equally at home on the open sea and in rivers and bays.

The Norsemen were aggressive and badass by nature, and they soon discovered that the coasts of Europe were dotted with cities and towns that were poorly defended and easy marks for plunder and piracy.

The word “vikingar,” by the way, means “pirates” in the early Scandinavian languages.

Numerous Viking raiding parties took to the sea, led by members of the strongman class. The longship crews primarily were farmers and other ordinary dudes attracted to the pirate life for the adventure and the booty.

History mentions other motivations, such as overpopulation and competition for farmland, but it makes sense that the primary cause was the presence of helpless victims, ripe for plundering.

Further, the Vikings probably made exploratory voyages to size things up before the major raiding began. But the first two known Viking raids of Britain were memorable.

In 789 AD, a group of Danish Vikings landed on the Isle of Portland, off the southern coast of England. They were met by a local official who assumed they were traders and told them they owed a business tax. The Vikings promptly killed him, plundered the island villages, and returned home with their spoils.

In 793 AD, Vikings from Norway raided an abbey on the island of Lindisfarne off the northeast coast of England. They carried away the church treasures, took some of the monks as slaves, and killed the rest.

Reportedly, the raid on the abbey gave rise to an Anglo-Saxon prayer: Free us from the fury of the Northmen, Lord.

Over the next couple of centuries, what began as hit-and-run raids evolved into conquests and colonization. Norsemen spread across Britain, Ireland, the Faroe Islands, Normandy, Iceland, Greenland, and along the eastern coast of the Baltic Sea.

Briefly, Vikings settled in Newfoundland and thus were the first Europeans to reach North America.

Not all of their intended victims were helpless. At various times, the Franks on the mainland, the Frisians on the North Sea, and some Anglo-Saxon tribes in the British Isles were able to repel the Viking raiders. In such cases, the Vikings simply raided elsewhere.

But the world was changing. Most of Scandinavia converted to Christianity, and clans across Europe were merging and evolving into nations. With fewer helpless victims around, the Viking threat subsided.

In effect, the Viking Age slowly sputtered out over several centuries. But many experts define its end as the historic year of 1066 AD.

In early 1066, the Anglo-Saxon King Harold repelled an invasion of England by a Viking force from Norway.

But Harold had little time to celebrate. Within months, the forces of the Duke of Normandy, AKA William the Conqueror, defeated Harold’s army at the Battle of Hastings, ushering in the Norman conquest of England.

Ironically, William the Conqueror was of Viking descent.


A badass Viking longship.

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A question that has long bedeviled theologians and philosophers is the “problem of evil.”

Namely, how does the concept of an omnipotent, benevolent God square with the existence of a world awash in pain and suffering. If God is good and all-powerful, why are people saddled with sickness, crime, war, suffering, and pain?

It doesn’t pay to pursue the issue very far, because it’s a philosophical rabbit hole. The question is unanswerable.

But deep thinkers throughout history have tried their best. One popular solution is to blame mankind itself. In other words, bad things happen because of our assorted misdeeds, which usually include the sin of impiety. The deity? Blameless and absolved.

Typically, myths, fables, and allegories have been used to sell the “it’s your own fault” message to the common folk. One example is the story of Pandora from Greek mythology. Pandora was the first mortal woman, created by order of Zeus, the king of the gods.

According to the mythology, humanity back then was a society of immortal males enjoying a Golden Age. Life was good. The guys worked hard and, of course, showed the gods appropriate reverence.

But things fell apart when Prometheus, one of the senior gods, gave the gift of fire to the mortals, an act that was strictly forbidden. For this transgression, Zeus had Prometheus strapped to a rock, and an eagle was dispatched to eat his liver. Every day, the liver grew back, only to be eaten again, ad infinitum.

As for the humans, Zeus punished them by creating Pandora, who, according to authority figures over the centuries, not only was hauntingly beautiful, but also was endowed with feminine wiles designed to make life miserable for the men.

The myth said she had a “shameless mind,” a “deceitful nature,” and the ability to wield “lies and crafty words.” She was “sheer guile, not to be withstood by men.” Take that, females.

In addition, Pandora possessed a mysterious jar given to her by the gods with a warning not to open it. Naturally, curiosity led her to take a peek, thus releasing into the world a host of evils and diseases from which humans previously had been spared.

(FYI, the popular term Pandora’s Box is a misnomer. It surfaced around the time of Homer when the poet Hesiod mistranslated an old manuscript. The container was not a box, but an urn or jar.)

So anyway, the Pandora myth is how the ancient Greeks explained away the “problem of evil.” They simply claimed that we deserve to suffer because we defied the gods. Vindicate the deity, blame the mortals.

That, and the mythmakers apparently couldn’t resist a chance to take cheap shots at women.

Pandora About to Open her Box” (her urn) by Lawrence Alma-Tadema, 1881.

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Thoughts du Jour

What’s in a Name?

In 1781, using a humongous new 40-foot telescope, British astronomer William Herschel discovered the planet Uranus. At the time, Mars was thought to be the outermost planet in the solar system.

In 1787, Herschell spotted two moons in orbit around Uranus and temporarily named them One and Two.

As more big telescopes were built and more moons were found, Sir William’s son John assumed the task of formally naming them. Being a proud Englishmen, Sir John broke from the tradition of using names from Greek mythology and named the moons after characters from the works of William Shakespeare and Alexander Pope.

Moons One and Two became Titania and Oberon from “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”

Today, Uranus has 27 known moons. Three are named for characters in poems by Pope, and 24 are named for Shakespearean characters.

Teklehaimanot

Putting up with spam texts and phone calls is a part of life these days, and I have a spam problem that has become especially maddening.

A few years ago, I began getting texts that read something like, “Hi, Teklehaimanot. This is Fred at Liberty Partners. Are you still interested in selling your property at 255 Lakefront Drive?”

The texts arrived regularly from Bill, John, Tina, etc., all asking Teklehaimanot if he wanted to sell various properties. In the most recent one, “Marc” asked if I want to sell 3430 Shorelake Drive in Tucker, Georgia, “in as-is condition.”

My guess is, they’re hoping for a reply to confirm that the number belongs to a live person. Anyway, I just mark the texts as spam, delete them, and block the numbers.

In all, I’ve received 40-50 Teklehaimanot messages. Which I admit is minor compared to the steady bombardment of incoming phone calls flagged as “potential spam.” A modern problem with no solution.

Teklehaimanot, by the way, is an Ethiopian word and can be either a first or a last name. It came from Saint Takla Haymanot (1215-1313), an Ethiopian priest who, legend has it, first spoke when he was three days old, healed the sick, cast out evil spirits, and raised the dead.

Blooey

The San Francisco Volcanic Field is a region of northern Arizona, covering about 1,800 square miles around Williams and Flagstaff, that contains over 600 extinct volcanoes. The volcanic remnants range in age from 6 million years old to a mere 1,000 years old.

The tallest remnant in the field is Humphreys Peak, which overlooks Flagstaff. Humphreys is part of the San Francisco Peaks, a mountain chain left behind after a massive volcano went blooey half a million years ago.

The US Geological Survey says it expects more eruptions to occur, maybe once every few thousand years. But the events are likely to be small and, with luck, will happen in remote areas.

The most recent eruption in the region occurred northeast of Flagstaff in about 1070 AD and created what is known as Sunset Crater.

At the time, the area was home to numerous native settlements, so people almost certainly witnessed the event. And maybe lived to tell about it.

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