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More “Useless Facts for Inquiring Minds.”

● While exploring Asia in the late 1200s, Marco Polo encountered a rhinoceros and concluded it was a unicorn. “They are very ugly brutes to look at,” he wrote. “They are not at all such as we describe unicorns.”

● Writing with pen and ink was a messy and frustrating business until a ray of hope appeared in 1888. That year, a patent was issued for a pen with a rotating ball in the tip to control the release of ink. A clever concept, but the thing was still annoyingly unpredictable.

The real breakthrough came in the 1940s, when Laszlo Biro, a Hungarian newspaper editor, observed that printing ink dries faster than writing ink. Biro developed a formulation that worked well in a ballpoint pen, made millions, and eventually sold his patent to the Bic Corporation.

In most of Europe and Asia today, a ballpoint pen is called a ‘biro.”

● The first woman elected to Congress was Jeannette Rankin of Montana, who served two terms in the House of Representatives, 1917-1919 and 1941-1943, both during wartime. A Republican, she was a long-time leader of the women’s suffrage movement and a committed pacifist.

During the 1916 campaign, as World War I raged in Europe, she said, “If they are going to have war, they ought to take the old men and leave the young to propagate the race.” After the attack on Pearl Harbor, she was the only member of the House to vote against declaring war on Japan. “As a woman, I can’t go to war,” she said, “and I refuse to send anyone else.”

● In the Western Hemisphere, hurricanes are classified according to the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale. Developed in 1971, the scale rates a storm based on sustained wind speed and anticipated property damage.

The scale’s creators were Herbert Saffir, a structural engineer, and Robert Simpson, a meteorologist. They patterned it after the Richter Scale, which quantifies earthquakes.

Hurricane scale

● Vodka is a tasteless spirit distilled from fermented grain or potatoes. The name comes from the Russian word “voda” (water) and/or the Polish word “woda” (water).

Both countries claim to have invented vodka. Russia says it invented the stuff in the 9th century. Poland says vodka was first distilled in Poland in the 8th century. Russia dismisses the early Polish version as a crude brandy, not real vodka. Take that, Poland.

● The largest national park in the U.S. is Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve in Alaska. Established in 1980, the park covers 20,000 square miles, which is a bit larger than Switzerland and a bit smaller than Ireland.

● Cleopatra (69 BC – 30 BC) ruled Egypt as the last member of the Ptolemaic dynasty, a family of Greeks who took power after the death of Alexander the Great in 305 BC. Cleopatra was the only Ptolemy to speak Egyptian instead of Greek. After her death, reportedly by suicide, Egypt became a Roman province.

● Nike, Inc., the footwear and apparel behemoth, began in 1964 as Blue Ribbon Sports. In 1971, having settled on a new “swoosh” logo design, the company sought a new name.

Among the top proposals by the founders and employees were Peregrine, Bengal, and Dimension Six. Then, employee Jeff Johnson called in from a business trip to Portland, Oregon, and suggested Nike, the name of the winged Greek goddess of victory.

CEO Phil Knight made the final decision. “I guess we’ll go with the Nike thing for a while,” he reportedly said. “I don’t like any of them, but I guess that’s the best of the bunch.”

Nike

● The 17th Century Native American woman Pocahontas, daughter of Chief Powhatan, is famous for intervening to save the life of Captain John Smith as her father was about to execute him. For the most part, her story has been romanticized and exaggerated.

In real life, she was kidnapped by the English, converted to Christianity, took the name Rebecca, got married, had a son, toured England as an example of a “civilized savage,” and died there at age 21.

● You know how bags of potato chips are inflated and puffy, and they go whoosh when you open them? That’s because the bags are filled with nitrogen gas before sealing. Nitrogen is used because it’s a stable gas that doesn’t react chemically with the chips, so they remain fresh longer.

● At present, 24 countries around the world are named for men (Bolivia for Simon Bolivar, Colombia for Christopher Columbus, The Philippines for King Philip of Spain, etc.). Only one country, the Caribbean nation of Saint Lucia, is named for a woman.

Saint Lucia of Syracuse, aka Saint Lucy, was martyred in 304 AD by the conquering Romans for distributing her considerable riches among her Greek countrymen. This displeased her betrothed, a highly-connected Roman, and she was sentenced to be defiled in a brothel.

According to legend, the guards who came to arrest her were unable to move her, even with a team of oxen. They tried to burn her at the stake, but the fire went out. Finally, she was sent to her reward by sword.

The late comedian Jackie Gleason (1916-1987) is buried at Our Lady of Mercy Catholic Cemetery in Miami. Etched into the marble steps leading to his grave is one of his well-known catchphrases, And away we go!

Gleason grave

 

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The Questions…

1. Four of the five Great Lakes share borders with the U.S. and Canada. The fifth is located entirely within the United States. Name it.

2. What is Morton’s toe?

3. Each year in Scotland, a music festival is held on the banks of Loch Ness, the purported home of the “Loch Ness Monster.” What is the name of the festival?

4. In 1908, SOS was adopted as the universal distress signal sent in Morse code by wireless operators. What signal did it replace?

5. If you use the term peacocks to refer to a group of the birds that includes both sexes, you are in error. The male is a peacock, and the female is a peahen. (Juveniles are peachicks.) What is the proper collective term for a group that includes males and females?

The Answers…

1. Lake Michigan.

2. Morton’s toe is a condition in which the second toe is longer than the big toe. It occurs on 10-20 percent of feet. In the 1920s, Dr. Dudley J. Morton discovered its cause: a slightly short metatarsal in the big toe.

3. Rock Ness.

4. Originally, wireless operators transmitted CQD as a distress signal. CQ meant a call to all stations, and the D was for distress. The world switched to SOS because CQ and CQD are too similar and could be confused. When the Titanic was sinking in 1912, its radio officer sent out multiple calls, alternating CQD and SOS.

5. The correct term is peafowl. FYI, a group of peafowl is called a pride or an ostentation.

Great Lakes

Peafowl

 

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More “Useless Facts for Inquiring Minds.”

● The Washington Monument, built between 1848 and 1885, is 555 feet tall and consists of 36,000 marble blocks weighing a total of 82,000 tons. The walls range from 15 feet thick at the base to 18 inches thick at the top. No mortar was used in the construction; the marble blocks are held in place by friction and gravity.

● The luxury jeweler Tiffany & Co. provides the trophies for the NFL Super Bowl Championship, the U.S. Open Tennis Championship, several NASCAR races, the Indy 500, and a bunch of other events.

The capital of the Republic of Korea (aka South Korea) is the “Seoul Special Metropolitan City” (aka Seoul). In the Korean language, the word seo’ul means “capital city.”

Commercially pre-sliced bread went on sale for the first time on July 7, 1928, at a bakery in Chillicothe, Missouri. Otto Rohwedder of St. Louis invented the machine that sliced and wrapped the loaves. That device is now on display at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington.

Sliced white bread, 2006.

● The familiar piano song “Chopsticks” was written in 1877 by Euphemia Allen, a 16-year-old English girl (who published it under a male pseudonym). The original title was “The Celebrated Chop Waltz.” Euphemia’s intent was for the hands to strike the piano keys like a cleaver chopping meat. Over time, the word chop evolved to chopsticks in popular usage, but the song has no connection to actual chopsticks.

● In April 1861, one day after Virginia seceded from the Union, President Lincoln offered command of the Union Army to a highly-regarded, 25-year military veteran, Col. Robert E. Lee. Lee instead resigned his Union commission and took command of Virginia’s military forces.

Had Lee accepted Lincoln’s offer, or simply retired and gone home, he would have deprived the Confederacy of a crackerjack commander. The union may well have defeated the South quickly and decisively, reaching the same outcome with a mere fraction of the death, destruction, misery, and animus that ensued. I’m just sayin’.

● Depicting data in a pie chart is a common practice everywhere, but “pie chart” is an English term. In France, it’s called a “Camembert,” which is a round cheese typically cut in wedges. In Germany, a pie chart is a “tortendiagram” — a diagram shaped like a torte or cake.

● Rhinopithecus strykeri, the “Burmese sneezing monkey,” is an endangered primate discovered a few years ago in Myanmar. The species is unique for its wide, upturned nostrils. Natives report that water easily gets in the monkeys’ nostrils during a rain, and they can be heard sneezing. The monkeys are said to spend rainy days sitting quietly with their heads tipped forward.

Burmese Sneezing Monkey

● Vaseline Petroleum Jelly was patented in 1872 by Robert Chesebrough of Brooklyn, New York. Chesebrough had visited an oil field in Pennsylvania in 1859 and learned about a waxy substance that built up on the pumps and had to be removed periodically. Workers often used the stuff to soothe cuts and abrasions.

Chesebrough took samples home and spent the next decade perfecting the product. His company manufactured Vaseline until 1987, when Unilever bought the rights.

● Over the years, a surprising number of animals have been rocketed into space, usually to test whether they could survive the conditions. Some did, some didn’t. Among the animals: fruit flies, dogs, monkeys, chimps, mice, rats, rabbits, turtles, frogs, mealworms, insects, spiders, amoebae, fish, jellyfish, and one cat.

The cat was Félicette, a stray found on the streets of Paris and sent into space by France in 1963. After a 15-minute sub-orbital flight, Félicette’s capsule parachuted back to Earth, and she was recovered safely.

● The continental U.S. and mainland China are roughly the same size, both being about 3,000 miles wide. Geographically, that covers four time zones in the U.S., and five in China. However, in 1949, the Communist Party switched the entire country to Beijing Standard Time. In addition to having just one time zone, China also ignores daylight savings time.

● In 1782, General George Washington created the Badge of Military Merit to be given to soldiers who exhibited gallantry in battle or performed an essential service. It was the first award meant to recognize ordinary soldiers instead of glorifying their superiors.

The award was given three times during the Revolutionary War, but it fell out of use thereafter. In the 1930s, the War Department revived it as the Purple Heart Medal. It was given retroactively to all living veterans of previous wars who had proof of being wounded.

Badge-Heart

 

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You may be familiar with an experiment involving five monkeys in a cage, a bunch of bananas on a string, and a ladder. The story has been around for many years.

Sometimes, it’s presented as a scientific study that actually happened (apparently not true). More often, it’s used as an allegory — a parable, fable, cautionary tale, or whatever — that equates the behavior of monkeys to that of people.

The point is to illustrate the absurdity and the dangers of passive thinking. Of mindlessly following the herd.

First the story, then we can discuss.

———

Start with a cage containing five monkeys.

Inside the cage, suspend a bunch of bananas on a string, out of reach. Place a ladder under the bananas. Before long, one of the monkeys will try to climb the ladder to reach the bananas.

As soon as he touches the ladder, spray the other monkeys with cold water.

After a while, a second monkey will make the same attempt. Again, spray all the other monkeys with cold water.

Soon, when any monkey tries to climb the ladder, the other monkeys will act together to forcefully prevent it.

At this point, stop using cold water to punish the monkeys.

Remove one monkey from the cage, and replace it with a new monkey. The newcomer will see the bananas and try to climb the ladder. To his surprise, the other monkeys will attack him.

After another attempt and another attack, he understands that if he tries to climb the ladder, he will be assaulted.

Next, remove a second of the original five monkeys, and replace it with a new one. Newcomer #2 will try to use the ladder to get the bananas and will be attacked. Note that Newcomer #1 will participate in the group attack.

Replace another of the original five monkeys with a new one. Newcomer #3 will try to get the bananas and also will be attacked.

At this point, two of the four attacking monkeys have been sprayed with cold water, but the other two have not; newcomers #1 and #2 have no idea why they aren’t permitted to climb the ladder and no idea why the group attacks Newcomer #3.

Continue this process and replace the fourth and fifth original monkeys. Now all five monkeys in the cage are newcomers and were never sprayed with cold water. Nevertheless, no monkey will approach the ladder. Why not?

Because, as far as they know, things always have been done that way.

———

This story is especially interesting because of it’s similarity to the beliefs of behavioral psychologist B. F. Skinner (1904-1990). Skinner made the controversial claim that “free will” does not exist. He said people inevitably act and react based on previous experience — based on whether a previous action had good or bad consequences.

Skinner believed this opens the door to controlling group behavior, which he called “cultural engineering.” He saw this as a good thing, a means of creating a benevolent utopian society.

Maybe so, but the concept also has ominous Big Brother and 1984 overtones.

Personally, I’m a big fan of critical thinking. Objective analysis. A rational evaluation of the facts. In short, the scientific method.

That approach works pretty well everywhere, not just in the realm of science. For example, in the Marine Corps, in addition to the official motto “Semper Fidelis” (always faithful), many units have adopted the unofficial mantra “Improvise, Adapt. Overcome.”

Excellent advice. But probably not in the lexicon of the average monkey.

Five monkeys

 

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Theodore Roosevelt, Jr. (1858-1919), the son of socialite parents, was a fascinating and influential figure in American history. At various times, he was a working cowboy, Rough Rider, scholar of naval history, writer, conservationist, and politician. He served as the 33rd Governor of New York, the 25th Vice President, and the 26th President.

Roosevelt was an exuberant personality with a spirited joie de vivre. His public image (and self-image) was that of a robust, manly man. I’ve written about him several times on this blog, to wit “Teddy and Edwin,” “Princess Alice,” and “To Mar the Wonderful Grandeur.”

When Roosevelt and his family moved into the White House in 1901, they proved to be, no surprise, a colorful and entertaining bunch. Teddy was Teddy, and the six Roosevelt children (Quentin, Archie, Ethel, Kermit, Ted Jr., and Alice, ranging in age from four to 17) were pampered and high-spirited.

The Roosevelts, all of them, were ardent animal lovers. During Teddy’s eight years in office, a wide range of pets, livestock, and exotic creatures resided in and around the White House.

TR-1

Teddy and friends.

Among the family dogs were Manchu, a Pekingese; Sailor Boy, a Chesapeake Bay Retriever; Pete, most likely a Bull Terrier; Rollo, a 200-pound Saint Bernard; Skip, a Rat Terrier mix; and Jack, a Manchester Terrier.

Stabled on the White House grounds were 10 horses (Bleistein, Grey Dawn, Jocko Root, Renown, Roswell, Rusty, Wyoming, General, Judge, and Yagenka) and two ponies for the children (Algonquin and General Grant).

Other family pets: five guinea pigs (Admiral Dewey, Dr. Johnson, Bishop Doane, Fighting Bob Evans, and Father O’Grady); Eli Yale, a blue macaw; Loretta the parrot; and two cats, Tom Quartz and Slippers.

TR-2

Quentin and Slippers.

Alice, the oldest child, had a pet snake named Emily Spinach. She explained that it was as green as spinach and as thin as her Aunt Emily.

Also part of the Roosevelt menagerie: Jonathan, a piebald rat; two kangaroo rats; a flying squirrel; a barn owl; two parrots; a raccoon; a coyote; a zebra; a wildcat; five bears; Joe the lion; and Bill the hyena.

Also, Maude, a white pig; Peter the rabbit; Bill the lizard; Baron Spreckle, a hen; and a one-legged rooster whose name I couldn’t ferret out.

TR-3

Manchu was a black Pekingese, a gift to Alice from the Empress of China. Alice relished the dramatic, and she claimed she once saw Manchu dancing on his hind legs on the White House lawn in the moonlight.

Teddy wrote that one of his favorite dogs, Sailor Boy, “had a masterful temperament and a strong sense of both dignity and duty.” He said the dog always broke up fights among the other dogs and “himself never fought unless circumstances imperatively demanded it.”

In 1907, the President wrote to his son Kermit that Pete the Bull Terrier had killed four squirrels. Teddy said it was proof that “the squirrels were getting so careless that something was sure to kill them anyhow.”

In time, Pete acquired the unfortunate habit of biting people. His victims included a naval officer, a policeman, and a cabinet minister. At first, Teddy said it was “the nature of the breed,” and he resisted getting rid of Pete.

But Pete sealed his own fate when he attacked the French Ambassador. Reportedly, Pete chased the Ambassador down a White House corridor, caught him, and tore the bottom out of his pants.

The French government filed a formal complaint; Pete was exiled to the family’s Long Island estate.

Teddy bragged that Jack the Manchester Terrier “was human in his intelligence and affection; he learned all kinds of tricks and was a high-bred gentleman.” Jack also was known to gnaw on books, and he was afraid of the female cat, Tom Quartz.

When Jack died, he was buried on the White House grounds. But the First Lady soon had second thoughts. She said she didn’t want to leave Jack behind “beneath the eyes of presidents who might care nothing for little black dogs.” Accordingly, when the Roosevelts left Washington in 1908, Jack’s remains were moved to the family estate on Long Island.

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Jack the Manchester Terrier.

Algonquin was a Shetland pony belonging to Archie. In 1903, while Archie was in bed recovering from measles, he told his mother he missed Algonquin and wanted to go to the stables to see him. His mother told Archie he was too ill and needed to stay in bed.

While Archie sulked, one of the stable hands suggested to the First Lady that they bring the pony to Archie. With the First Lady’s approval, Algonquin was walked into the White House, onto an elevator, up to the second floor, and down the hall to Archie’s bedroom, where a joyful reunion ensued.

TR-5

Archie astride Algonquin.

Eli Yale, a Hyacinth Macaw, was the beloved pet of 14-year-old Ted Jr. The bird was named after Elihu Yale, the British philanthropist and namesake of Yale University. The President wrote, “Eli is the most gorgeous macaw, with a bill that I think could bite through boilerplate, who crawls all over Ted, and whom I view with dark suspicion.”

TR-6

Ted Jr. and Eli Yale.

Archie had a pet badger named Josiah that was said to be friendly, but occasionally short-tempered. Once, when Teddy saw Archie carrying Josiah in his arms, he warned his son that the badger might bite his face.

Archie replied, “He bites legs sometimes, but he never bites faces.”

TR-7

Archie and Josiah.

Most of the exotic and wild animals were gifts from world leaders. Bill the hyena, for example, was presented to Roosevelt in 1904 by the Emperor of Ethiopia.

According to White House archives, Teddy was reluctant to accept the animal, being of the opinion that hyenas are cowardly creatures.

But he relented, and soon, Bill was allowed inside the White House, where he was known to beg for scraps at the dinner table.

Joe the lion, also a gift from the Emperor of Ethiopia, never set a paw on the White House grounds. Like the zebra, the wildcat, and others, Joe was taken on arrival to the National Zoo.

For reasons I couldn’t determine, Bill the hyena eventually joined him there.

TR-8

The Roosevelt family. Left to right: Quentin, Teddy, Ted Jr., Archie, Alice, Kermit, Edith, and Ethel.

 

 

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The Questions…

1. The Pentagon, headquarters of the Department of Defense, has 284 restrooms, twice as many as the occupant level requires. Why is that?

2. What American president financed his first run for public office with poker winnings?

3. Canada has more lakes than the rest of the world combined. How many?

4. In 1865, Robert Todd Lincoln, the oldest son of President Abraham Lincoln, fell from a platform in a busy New Jersey train station into the path of an oncoming train. Who stepped forward from the crowd and pulled young Lincoln to safety?

5. Rodney Dangerfield, the “I don’t get no respect” comedian, died in 2004 and is buried in Westwood Cemetery in Los Angeles. What epitaph is inscribed on his tombstone?

The Answers…

1. When the Pentagon was under construction in 1943, Virginia insisted that it have racially segregated restrooms in accordance with state law. To avoid a hassle, the feds complied and built extra restrooms. But they never posted white and colored signs, thus leaving the facilities open to both black and white employees. Touché.

2. Richard Nixon. He was a skillful poker player while an ensign in the Navy, and he used $5,000 of his winnings to finance his successful run for Congress in 1946.

3. Nobody knows exactly, but at least three million.

4. The well-known actor Edwin Booth. A few months later, Booth’s brother John assassinated President Lincoln.

5. “…There goes the neighborhood.”

Pentagon

Dangerfield

 

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Useless Facts

— In 1804, when President Thomas Jefferson dispatched the Lewis and Clark expedition to explore the Louisiana Purchase, he instructed the men to be on the lookout for woolly mammoths and giant ground sloths. In Jefferson’s day, extinction was a fuzzy concept.

— The television network C-SPAN was created in 1979 by the cable TV industry as a public service. C-SPAN is an acronym for Cable-Satellite Public Affairs Network.

— Eric Clapton is the only musician elected to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame three times. He was inducted in 1992 as a member of The Yardbirds, in 1993 as a member of Cream, and in 2000 as a solo performer.

— The resting heart rate of a hummingbird is about 250 beats per minute. (In adult humans, the rate is 75-80 beats per minute.) When a hummingbird is in flight, the rate can increase to 1,200 beats per minute.

Hummingbird wings do not flap. They rotate in a full circle, at up to 70 rotations per second.

Hummingbird

The French equivalent of the acronym “LOL” (laughing out loud) is “MDR,” which means “mort de rire” (dying of laughter).

— The British Museum in London, usually considered the largest and most comprehensive in the world, houses a vast collection that documents the entirety of human culture. Over 230 million objects are preserved by the institution, and its website hosts the world’s largest online museum database.

— In 1957, two business partners in New Jersey tried to develop a new type of wallpaper by sealing two shower curtains together. The idea proved impractical, but the material they created was ideal for protecting products in shipment. Their company still manufactures a wide range of Bubble Wrap® products today.

— The first known e-commerce transaction, in which an online buyer used a credit card protected by encryption technology, occurred on August 11, 1994. On that date, the website NetMarket, operated by a 21-year-old entrepreneur from New Hampshire, sold a Sting CD to a buyer in Philadelphia for $12.48 plus shipping.

Sting CD

— Between 1964 and 1966, The Beatles visited the U.S. four times and performed 56 live concerts. At each concert, the band’s legal contract stipulated that they would not perform before a racially segregated audience.

— Sixteen percent of the population suffers from trypophobia, the fear of clusters of irregular holes, such as those found in sponges and honeycombs.

— The record for the world’s tallest known man is held by Robert Wadlow (1918-1940) of Alton, Illinois. His height was verified as 8 feet, 11.1 inches. The title of the world’s tallest known woman is held by Zeng Jinlian (1964-1982) of Hunan, China. She was 8 feet, 1.75 inches tall.

— The scarlet jellyfish, a small species found in the Pacific Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea, has the unique ability to rejuvenate itself rather than die. When old, sick, or stressed, it can revert to its polyp stage and basically start its life over. Theoretically, this process can go on indefinitely, making the animal biologically immortal. In nature, however, they eventually succumb to disease or predation.

Scarlet jellyfish

 

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