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Posts Tagged ‘History’

Useless Facts

More “Useless Facts for Inquiring Minds.”

● Pink Floyd’s 1973 album The Dark Side of the Moon was so popular, it remained on the record charts for 962 weeks — over 15 years.

● Six of the eight planets in the solar system rotate counter-clockwise, the same as the Sun. The exceptions are Venus, which rotates clockwise, and Uranus, which rotates clockwise while tilted on its side. For the record, the former planet Pluto also rotates clockwise and tilted.

● Disney World has 46 rides.

● Dolphins have the ability to go without sleep by resting half of their brains while the other half remains on duty. The halves then switch places. Studies have shown dolphins doing the resting thing for as long as two weeks before taking an actual full-on snooze.

● When the piano was invented in Italy in 1698, it was called a fortepiano or pianoforte. In Italian, piano and forte mean soft and loud, respectively, a reference to the volume level depending on how hard the keys are struck.

● In the 1963 film Cleopatra, Elizabeth Taylor changed costumes 65 times.

Nephophobia is the fear of clouds. It usually manifests after a scary incident involving a storm, hurricane, or tornado. Nepho is Greek for cloud.

● On average, an ear of corn has 800 kernels arranged in 16 rows. For reasons undetermined so far, the ears almost always have an even number of rows. An odd number is rare.

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Thoughts du Jour

Arlington House

In 1831, after Lt. Robert E. Lee and Mary Custis were married, the happy couple took up residence at her childhood home in Virginia: the Arlington House mansion, across the Potomac River from Washington, DC. The Lees lived there for the next 30 years.

1831 plus 30 equals 1861; the Civil War began, and Robert was off to war. Mary, warned by a cousin that the feds planned to seize her property, went to stay with relatives behind Confederate lines.

In 1862, Congress imposed a special tax on property in “insurrectionary” areas, payable in person. For Mary, who suffered from rheumatoid arthritis, travel was almost impossible. Whereupon, the government seized her property for non-payment.

In 1864, the federal government created Arlington National Cemetery on the Lee estate. A new cemetery indeed was badly needed because of war casualties. But using that particular property would — and did — prevent the Lees from returning home after the war.

General Lee never saw Arlington House again. Mary Lee went back once, a few months before her death, but was too distraught to go inside.

Chief Noc-A-Homa

From 1966 until 1986, the symbol of the Atlanta Braves at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium was Chief Noc-A-Homa. The chief wore war paint, danced around a tipi in the left field seats, and set off a smoke bomb when the Braves scored a run.

A stereotype demeaning to Native Americans? Well, from 1968 to 1986, the chief was portrayed by Levi Walker, a member of the Odawsa tribe from the Great Lakes region. That helped a bit.

Walker, incidentally, once set his tipi on fire when a smoke bomb went off inside. He claimed it was sabotage.

In 1982, when the Braves opened the season 13-0, Ted Turner ordered the chief’s tipi removed to sell more seats. The Braves lost 19 of the next 21 games. Turner put the tipi back up, and the Braves went on to win the division title.

The Braves and the chief parted ways after a falling-out in 1986. The team said Walker was missing too many games, and Walker wanted a raise. His salary was $60 per game.

The Cream Cheese Rule

The NCAA has a 400-page rule book that governs the behavior of student athletes in great detail, some of which spills over into the laughably ridiculous. For example, in 2008, a rule was enacted that athletes on full scholarship were not allowed to eat bagels adorned with any type of spread.

Plain bagels were allowed, as were unlimited snacks of fruit and nuts and such, but bagels topped with cream cheese, etc. were forbidden.

Why? NCAA rules state that student athletes on full scholarship are allowed three meals a day. In its wisdom, the NCAA decided that, while a plain bagel constituted a snack, a bagel with butter, peanut butter, jelly, goat cheese, or whatever amounted to a fourth meal.

The new rule was widely mocked and dubbed the “cream cheese rule.” Finally, in 2013, the NCAA relented and scrapped the rule.

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The Questions…

1. The mythological griffin (or griffon, or gryphon) is a combination of what two animals?

2. What US president took the oath of office using his nickname instead of his given name?

3. Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer first appeared in 1939. What is his origin story?

4. What do you call the slot in the shaft of an arrow where the bowstring fits?

5. What was the profession of the seven dwarfs, the characters in the 1812 German fairy tale by the Brothers Grimm?

The Answers…

1. An eagle and a lion.

2. Jimmy Carter.

3. Rudolph was created by the Montgomery Ward department store chain as a Christmas promotion. Bob May, a copywriter in the MW advertising department, wrote the story about shy little Rudolph leading Santa’s sleigh, etc., and an illustrated version of the story was printed and made available to shoppers.

4. The nock.

5. They were miners. Or, in the parlance of 1812, delvers.

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Useless Facts

More “Useless Facts for Inquiring Minds.”

● Richard Burton, who starred in the 1984 film “1984,” died in 1984.

● Ninety Mile Beach in New Zealand is only 55 miles long. It is misnamed because European settlers in the mid-1800s could traverse the beach on horseback in three days, and horses typically covered 30 miles a day. They failed to account for sand slowing their progress.

● 250 languages are written and read from left to right, 12 from right to left.

● In Hawaiian, the word ukulele means jumping flea.

● The Province of New Jersey, an English colony that preceded the American Revolution, granted women the right to vote in 1776. But in 1807, as a US state, New Jersey reverted to the old system wherein only white men could vote. Classy.

● In America, 375 slices of pizza are consumed per second.

● 45 men have served as US President. Only 12 were elected to a second term.

● The only member of ZZ Top who doesn’t have a beard is Frank Beard.

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The Chaos of Evolution

Science, as you know, is willing to change its conclusions as new evidence warrants. Well, while I wasn’t paying attention, science made a whopper of a change about the nature of evolution.

As Darwin explained, evolution occurs through the process of natural selection. Namely, the fittest organisms survive, reproduce, and pass on their traits to the next generation. The idea also took root that the process unfolds as a rather neat and orderly progression, as if the species is changing by climbing a ladder, moving onward and upward.

That concept — that evolution is largely progressive — is now out the window. Instead, experts think evolution is less like a ladder and more like a big, gnarly tree, with lots of branches and numerous dead ends everywhere.

The new thinking is that a species evolves to adapt to a specific, immediate environment. For example, researchers once believed that the first horses had four toes, then evolved to three, then two, and finally to hooves.

More likely, toed horses evolved as more suitable in various marshy habitats, and hoofed horses evolved to navigate dry, rocky ground. Maybe one evolved from the other, maybe it didn’t. Think chaos, not orderliness.

Learning this made my head swim, but it makes sense. And it’s wonderfully objective.

I love science.

The Chase

My dog Jake sees deer all the time as they pass through the woods behind our house. It’s a thrill for him, but he’s inside a fence. You can bet he aches to be free, to give chase as nature intended, galloping in pursuit through the trees, unrestrained by fence or leash.

Not long ago, he got his wish. He and I went walking at Jefferson Elementary School on a Saturday, when he could go off-leash. The school property backs up to a multiple-acre woods.

As we walked along the edge of the woods, Jake suddenly froze and stared into the trees. Seconds later, a deer bolted and took flight. In a heartbeat, Jake was after it.

The chase lasted 10 or 15 seconds. Ultimately, 75 or so yards away, the deer leapt a fence into the safety of someone’s back yard. The drama was over.

When Jake came trotting back out of the woods, he was panting with excitement and exhaustion. A beaming dog smile was on his face.

Chickens

The chicken (Gallus gallus domesticus) is the planet’s most common bird and one of the most widespread of domestic animals. More than 50 billion cluckers are raised annually as a source of meat and eggs. They are a crucial and relatively low-maintenance food source worldwide.

The modern chicken is a descendant of junglefowl that evolved on the Indian subcontinent about 8,000 years ago. Man has raised domestic chickens since the time of the ancient Greeks and Egyptians.

Early ocean-going explorers, including the Vikings, helped introduce chickens to all parts of the world. Typically, live chickens were kept on ships as part of the crew’s food supply, and the birds often were traded in foreign ports for needed supplies.

The origin of chickens in the Americas? Christopher Columbus introduced them here on his second voyage in 1493.

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A Way With Words

As I noted a while back in this post, I’m not a fan of the works of William Shakespeare. I put it this way:

Most of us, especially we writers, have an ingrained tendency to be precise and literal when we communicate. We try to speak and write in ways that best convey our intended meaning to others. That would seem to be the point: to express thoughts clearly and precisely.

Shakespeare saw it differently. He was among the poets and authors to whom clarity and precision are optional. Their goal, apparently, was to perform and entertain.

Well, I prefer clarity and precision. So I tune out the likes of Shakespeare in favor of, oh, Robert Frost and Sarah Teasdale and Dorothy Parker and Poe and Kipling.

Shakespeare himself, of course, was a genius. His mastery of the English language was astounding. And he created hundreds of new words and phrases, as well as found new ways to use existing ones.

His phrases “break the ice,” “melted into thin air,” and “the lady doth protest too much” are wonderfully, brilliantly descriptive.

Here are other common expressions Shakespeare is credibly thought to have originated:

All that glitters is not gold
All the livelong day
As luck would have it
Be-all and end-all
Brave new world
Breathe one’s last
Brevity is the soul of wit
Clothes make the man
Down the primrose path
Eat me out of house and home
Fancy-free
Fit for the gods
Foregone conclusion
Forever and a day
The game is afoot
Give the devil his due
Good riddance
Greek to me
Have not slept one wink
Heart of gold
In my heart of hearts
Kill with kindness
Knock, knock. Who’s there?
Lie low
Love is blind
Made of sterner stuff
Method in one’s madness
Mind’s eye
My own flesh and blood
Naked truth
Neither rhyme nor reason
Off with his head
One fell swoop
Pitched battle
Pure as the driven snow
Seen better days
Something wicked this way comes
Smells to high heaven
Star-crossed lovers
Strange bedfellows
To each his own
Too much of a good thing
Tower of strength
Wear my heart upon my sleeve
What’s done is done
Wild goose chase
The world is my oyster

As for the individual words he created, most were legitimate and useful, rarely designed for dramatic one-time use, as in Lewis Carroll’s “’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves…”

Many were existing words he cleverly combined, such as cruel-hearted and never-ending.Or words whose usage he changed — converting verbs to adjectives, nouns to verbs, etc., such as converting the noun elbow to a verb to describe the act of elbowing.

Below is a list — abbreviated, mind you — of words attributed to Shakespeare.

Admirable
Arch-villain
Barefaced
Baseless
Belongings
Birthplace
Bloodstained
Bloodsucking
Catlike
Cold-blooded
Cold-hearted
Countless
Dauntless
Disgraceful
Distasteful
Distrustful
Eventful
Excitement
Eyeball
Fairyland
Fanged
Fashionable
Featureless
Fitful
Foul-mouthed
Fretful
Gallantry
Go-between
Homely
Hot-blooded
Ill-tempered
Indistinguishable
Lackluster
Majestic
Malignancy
Meditate
Mimic
Money’s worth
Monumental
Mortifying
Motionless
Nimble-footed
Overblown
Pageantry
Premeditated
Pious
Priceless
Profitless
Quarrelsome
Rawboned
Reclusive
Remorseless
Resolve
Restraint
Savagery
Shipwrecked
Soft-hearted
Spectacled
Swagger
Time-honored
To blanket
To castigate
To champion
To dishearten
To dislocate
To enmesh
To impede
To muddy
To overpower
To perplex
To petition
To rant
To reword
To secure
To sire
To squabble
To sully
To undervalue
To undress
Tranquil
Transcendence
Unappeased
Unchanging
Uneducated
Unquestioned
Unrivaled
Unscratched
Unsolicited
Unsullied
Unswayed
Unvarnished
Unwillingness
Useful
Vulnerable
Well-behaved
Well-bred
Well-educated
Well-read

To sum up, I give the devil his due. I applaud Shakespeare as a wunderkind, a virtuoso of the English language. In that regard, he is unrivaled.

But in my heart of hearts, writing like this turns me off:

Accuse me thus: that I have scanted all
Wherein I should your great deserts repay,
Forgot upon your dearest love to call,
Whereto all bonds do tie me day by day;
That I have frequent been with unknown minds,
And giv’n to time your own dear purchased right;
That I have hoisted sail to all the winds
Which should transport me farthest from your sight.

All I can say is, to each his own.

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The Questions…

1. What is the world’s oldest continuously-inhabited city?

2. In the art world, what is bricolage?

3. What was the first country to give women the right to vote?

4. No major league baseball team uses the number 24 to honor what legendary player?

5. What does BMW stand for?

The Answers…

1. Probably Damascus, Syria. Evidence of habitation there dates back 11,000 years.

2. Bricolage is art created from non-standard material — junk, metal parts, etc. — or mixed media. A collage of photos, for example. The word bricolage comes from the French verb bricoler, which means “to tinker.”

3. New Zealand, 1893.

4. Jackie Robinson.

5. In English, Bavarian Motor Works. In German, Bayerische Motoren Werke.

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Ethics

Museums are wonderful things, except for their ugly history of acquiring artifacts through illegal or disreputable means. Countless items in museum collections were obtained by theft, coercion, bribery, deceit, etc.

Colonialism had a lot to do with it. For centuries, the European powers felt free to help themselves to the treasures of the countries they occupied, and regularly did.

But now, hopeful signs are appearing. Museums here are there actually are returning purloined artifacts to the rightful owners.

A new policy adopted this year by the Smithsonian Institution, the largest museum complex in the world, is especially welcome. The Smithsonian now is actively working to identify and return objects that were wrongfully obtained.

First on the list is a group of Nigerian plaques and sculptures known as the Benin Bronzes. Hundreds were stolen by the British in the 1890s, and over time, some found their way to the Smithsonian. The museum has identified 29 items as among those looted by the British and plans to return them to Nigeria.

Refreshing.

Booze of Choice

In 1994, on my first raft trip down the Colorado River through Grand Canyon, I observed that four of the five river guides drank alcohol, and all four drank the same thing: Jim Beam Original white label bourbon.

Not Jim Beam Black, or Jim Beam rye, or the bonded or single barrel versions, or any of Beam’s (yuck) fruity liqueurs. The guides drank Jim Beam Original white label.

I’ve now rafted Grand Canyon four times with two different outfitters. On all four trips, the pattern was the same: the guides who drank alcohol drank Jim Beam white label.

Every evening, after the passengers were fed and the chores were done, the guides usually gathered somewhere to relax, chat, and have a nightcap or three. The nightcap was always Jim Beam white label.

Although I didn’t inquire while on the trips, I can imagine how Beam became a thing. Maybe the alpha male guides preferred Beam — relatively cheap, fairly smooth, a reasonable 80 proof. Peer pressure kicked in, and, voilà, a tradition was born. When new guides were hired, they naturally followed the tradition.

I should mention, too, that after my 1994 raft trip, I switched from Jack Daniels Old No. 7 black label to Jim Beam Original white label. Which remains my booze of choice to this day.

Being Real

In the early 1800s, most runaway slaves in the US famously went north to freedom, but many fled south to Mexico, where slavery was newly banned. Mexico readily offered asylum, and Mexican troops were quick to confront slave catchers who pursued the runaways.

Back then, the Mexican territory of Texas was mostly populated by Anglos, and its economy was deeply dependent on slavery. Slaves not only worked farms and plantations, but also served widely as tradesmen and household servants. The economic importance of slavery was a key reason why Texas declared its independence from Mexico in 1836.

Mexico’s opposition to slavery and willingness to protect runaways isn’t well known, but it had consequences. It prompted more slaves to escape, and it aggravated friction in the US between north and south. The Civil War probably came sooner as a result.

I didn’t learn all that in school, but I know it now because I’m curious and open to the facts.

As we all should be. Conservatives get apoplectic when anyone challenges the comforting myths about America’s exceptionalism, superiority, and glorious history. As usual, the conservatives are full of it.

Fairy tales are a waste of time. Better to view the past honestly and try to understand how and why things happened. If it hurts your feelings, that’s probably a sign you learned something.

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Thoughts du Jour

Mummies

Humans have a habit of believing preposterous nonsense — embracing ideas that defy evidence and common sense. I could point to the behavior of today’s conservatives, but instead, consider the ancient Egyptians. They decided that the soul could not live on in the afterlife unless the body of the deceased was preserved. Seriously. Hence, their obsession with mummies.

The Egyptians traditionally buried the dead in the desert sand, which conveniently mummified the bodies. It was fine just to drop common folk in a hole, but it was inappropriate if you were important. So, for the rich and powerful, the Egyptians began building monument-style tombs.

The first such tomb was a mastaba, which in ancient Egyptian means “eternal house.” Mastabas were rectangular structures with inward-sloping sides and flat roofs, constructed of bricks made from mud. They protected the body from animals and grave robbers, but the absence of sand meant no mummification and — drat — no soul living on in the afterlife.

So they developed artificial mummification. For bigshots, of course. In time, the bigshots also concluded that mastabas weren’t elaborate enough, and pyramids became a thing.

In summary, the concept arose that your soul is doomed if your dead body decomposes as nature intended. Egyptian society seized on that idea and focused on it for several thousand years. You can’t make this stuff up.

The Island

For four years in the 1950s, my dad was stationed at Tyndall AFB, Florida, and we Smiths lived in nearby Panama City. In 1956, Dad got a one-year assignment as base commander at Thule AFB, Greenland. No dependents live at Thule, so Mom and us kids remained in Panama City.

Dad called, wrote, and sent photos regularly, which kept us up to date about life at Thule. One fact about the place that got a snicker from my 14-year-old self was the story of a small island within sight of the base named, in the Inuit language, Iganaq.

Due to its appearance in profile, people at Thule called the island the Witch’s Tit. Dad got a snicker, too, from telling us that.

In 1958, Greenland changed the name of the island from Iganaq to Dalrymple Rock. This was to honor Dr. Paul Dalrymple, a geographer and meteorologist who spent a good part of his career in Greenland.

Despite the name change, I’m sure the island remained Iganaq to the Inuit. And to the people stationed at Thule, it’s probably still the Witch’s Tit.

Unexpected Journey

When I stopped for lunch in Commerce recently, I had no way of knowing I was about to drive a mom and two preschoolers to the next county.

As I arrived at the Wendy’s parking lot, a female voice called out, “Sir! Sir! My car broke down, and my boys are with me, and my phone is dead! Can I borrow your phone to call my Nanna?”

The mom was in her late 20s and understandably stressed. I handed her my phone. She called Nanna, who didn’t answer, probably because it was from an unknown caller. So the mom sent a text. Still no reply. Nanna was MIA.

The mom thanked me and told me to proceed with my lunch. She said Nanna probably would respond soon. So I proceeded with lunch.

After lunch, I checked, and still no word from Nanna. I couldn’t just leave them stranded, so I told the mom I would drive them to Nanna’s house, which was about five minutes away. The mom protested feebly while transferring the boys and their car seats to my car.

She spent the drive trying to set me up with Nanna, who was described as healthy, active, attractive, and a widow. I was politely noncommittal.

Nanna was home, working in the garden. The mom wanted me to give Nanna my phone number, but Nanna (indeed a handsome woman) steered the mom away while waving a thank-you over her shoulder. I drove back to Commerce, where I bought some dog treats at Marshall’s.

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The Questions…

1. What flower bulbs once were used as currency?

2. What is a fipple?

3. The best-selling novel of all time was written in Spain in the early 1600s. What is it?

4. In ancient Egypt, what served as pillows?

5. What is the largest known cave system in the world?

The Answers…

1. Tulip bulbs. In the Dutch Republic in 1634, tulips were a new thing, and a wave of “tulip mania” swept the country. Certain varieties of tulip became coveted luxury items that soon were accepted as currency. The speculative bubble burst in 1637, and the fad fizzled.

2. The mouthpiece of a wind instrument.

3. “Don Quixote” by Miguel de Cervantes. Over 500 million copies sold.

4. Chunks of wood or stone.

5. Mammoth Cave in Kentucky. People have explored 400 miles of it, and national park officials believe another 600 miles is out there. Also, scattered around the region are some 200 smaller caves not connected to the Mammoth system.

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