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Useless Facts

More “Useless Facts for Inquiring Minds.”

The ancient Mayan and Aztec societies of Mexico/Central America used cocoa beans as currency. Cultivation of the beans was controlled to maintain its value as money, and the practice endured for centuries. In Nicaragua in the 1800s, about 100 cocoa beans would buy you a serviceable slave.

In the early 1960s, at age 14, singer-songwriter Billy Joel dropped out of high school and began performing with various bands in New York City. In 1970, before his career took off, he landed a gig in a TV commercial for Bachman Pretzels. Joel played piano in the background while Chubby Checker sang “There’s a new twist in Bachman!” to the tune of his hit song “The Twist.”

All 10 of the highest mountain peaks in the United States are in Alaska. Of the 50 highest U.S. peaks, 14 are in Alaska, 28 are in Colorado, seven are in California, and one is in Washington.

The only known warm-blooded fish is the opah or moonfish. The ability to regulate their bodies at a favorable temperature (about nine degrees warmer than the environment) makes them active predators that can chase down squid and other agile prey.

Opah

In 1877, President Rutherford B. Hayes had a telephone installed in the Telegraph Room adjacent to his office. His successors used a telephone located in a foyer just outside the Oval Office. In 1929, Herbert Hoover became the first President to have a phone on his desk.

The Serengeti or Serengeti Plain is a 12,000-square-mile ecosystem in west-central Africa noted for being a relatively undisturbed animal habitat. It is home to over two million wildebeest, half a million gazelles, 5,000 elephants, 4,000 hyenas, and 3,000 lions.

In 1996, Larry Page and Sergey Brin began developing an internet search engine called BackRub. In 1997, they changed the name to Google, a word inspired by the term Googol, which is a name given in the late 1930s to the number 10¹ºº. The term came from the nephew of mathematician Edward Kasner, who was asked for a word to describe an enormous number.

Griffey mania was rampant in 1989 as 19-year-old Ken Griffey, Jr. began his rookie season with the Seattle Mariners. Simultaneously, a marketing firm unveiled the Ken Griffey, Jr. Milk Chocolate Bar, over a million of which were sold in the first year. Ironically, Griffey was allergic to chocolate.

01162321.JPG

The Library of Congress was founded in 1800 inside the U.S. Capitol in Washington. Today, it occupies three buildings on Capitol Hill, plus massive storage facilities in Maryland and Virginia. The LOC houses about 186 million books, maps, films, sound recordings, etc. on 830 miles of shelves. It is the world’s largest library.

St. Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland, was a 5th-Century bishop and missionary who is credited with converting Ireland from a Celtic pagan religion to Christianity.

According to Patrick, he was born in Britain and kidnapped by Irish pirates at age 16. He was held in slavery for six years, but escaped and returned to Britain, where he was reunited with his family and became a cleric. Later, after a falling-out with the family, he returned to Ireland.

Baseball great Babe Ruth came up with a novel way to keep cool during the hot summer months: he chilled cabbage leaves in a cooler of ice and put a leaf or two under his baseball cap. The leaves would last a couple of innings before he had to replace them.

Until 2017, the last word in the Oxford English Dictionary was zythum, defined as an unfermented malt beer made in ancient Egypt. The new last word is zyzzyva, a genus of South American weevils. Actually, the word zyzzyva dates back to 1922, so Oxford seems to have dropped the ball here.

Zyzzyva

 

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Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.

— Seneca the Younger

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There is no charm equal to tenderness of heart.

— Jane Austen

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I have steadily endeavoured to keep my mind free so as to give up any hypothesis, however much beloved (and I cannot resist forming one on every subject) as soon as facts are shown to be opposed to it.

— Charles Darwin

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People speak sometimes about the “bestial” cruelty of man, but that is terribly unjust and offensive to beasts. No animal could ever be so cruel as a man, so artfully, so artistically cruel.

Fyodor Dostoyevsky

« Portrait de Sénèque d'après l'antique » (le Pseudo-Sénèque), b

Seneca

Dostoyevsky F

Dostoyevsky

 

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Demagoguery

Not long after Donald Trump became President (I pause to choke back the bile), he hung a portrait of Andrew Jackson in the Oval Office.

ap_17073650295814

No surprise there. Jackson, the seventh President, was a decidedly Trump-like guy. As history shows, he was as deplorable, personally and professionally, as Donald himself.

“Old Hickory” was a self-proclaimed People’s President. He railed against political elites and the establishment. He was vain, arrogant, egotistical, and perpetually angry.

Trump (“Old Bone Spur”) denigrates immigrants and minorities to keep his looney tunes supporters in a lather. Jackson, once a slave trader by profession, vilified Native Americans and confiscated their land to gain the support of European whites coming to America.

The fact is, most Americans of Jackson’s time were okay with systematically removing the tribes and taking their land. It was our “Manifest Destiny.” People admired Jackson for what became known as “rugged individualism.”

With the exception of Donald Trump (“Old Grab ‘Em”), no American President has been a total loser, with a record of all negatives and no positives (“Old Zero”). Jackson was as odious and contemptible as Trump, but still competent as a soldier and politician.

Further, unlike Trump, Jackson was a patriotic American. If Jackson were here today, he would be outraged over Trump’s traitorous collaboration with Russia and kowtowing to Putin. He probably would challenge Trump to a duel.

Jackson beats Trump easily in the competence department, but it is undeniable that a pall of hatefulness and cruelty hangs over his life and career.

(I was referring to Jackson, but okay, Trump too.)

The Slave Trade

Andrew Jackson was born in 1767 to a poor Scotch-Irish family on the border between North and South Carolina (both states claim him). As a young man, he became wealthy as a slave trader. He specialized in purchasing slaves in the upper South and selling them at a profit to the plantations of the lower South.

In 1804, Jackson purchased The Hermitage, a large Nashville cotton plantation that, of course, relied on slave labor. When he bought the property, he owned nine slaves. As he acquired more land, he procured more slaves. By 1829, he owned about 100. By the time he died, he owned 150.

Records show that Jackson beat his slaves regularly. He once had a woman whipped in public for “putting on airs.” Also on record are newspaper ads Jackson placed seeking the return of runaway slaves.

One ad offered an extra $10 for every 100 lashes administered to a 30-year-old runaway named Tom, should he be found. In other words, Jackson offered extra money to have the man killed.

The Native Problem

Jackson was equally harsh with Native Americans. As a major general during the War of 1812, he led a lengthy campaign in Alabama against rebellious Creeks (the Creek War, 1813-14).

The Creek Nation was divided. Many believed resisting the U.S. was futile, but hardliners known as “Red Sticks” allied themselves with the British and fought American expansion.

Jackson defeated the Red Stick faction in 1814 and, citing national security, proceeded to confiscate the land of all Creeks without exception, Red Stick or otherwise.

He became a national hero in 1815 when he led American forces to victory over the British in the Battle of New Orleans.

In 1817, supposedly without orders from his superiors, Jackson led his forces in an invasion of Florida, which was under Spanish control. His pretext: the Seminoles were giving refuge to escaped slaves. He captured several Spanish forts and claimed the surrounding territory for the United States.

The Spanish government strongly objected, and many in Congress wanted Jackson to be censured. But the hubbub soon died down, and the U.S. acquired Florida in 1821.

In 1824, Jackson ran for President, but lost to John Quincy Adams. In 1828, he ran against incumbent Adams and won.

The Removal

1828 also was the year gold was discovered in Georgia, much of it on tribal land. That discovery sealed the fate of the tribes in the Southeast. Congress immediately drafted the Indian Removal Act, which Jackson signed in 1830.

Under the act, 46,000 people of the Creek, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Cherokee, and Seminole nations were removed from their homelands. Most were force-marched 1,000 miles to Oklahoma. At least 6,000 died of exposure, starvation, and disease.

After the removal, the United States turned over about 25 million acres of confiscated Native American land to white settlers. It was a textbook case of ethnic cleansing.

According to Jackson, the removal was fitting and proper. He said this in a speech to Congress in 1833:

That those tribes cannot exist surrounded by our settlements and in continual contact with our citizens is certain. They have neither the intelligence, the industry, the moral habits, nor the desire of improvement, which are essential to any favorable change in their condition.

Established in the midst of another and superior race, and without appreciating the causes of their inferiority or seeking to control them, they must necessarily yield to the force of circumstances and ere long disappear.

“Alarmed at the Prospect”

Jackson was popular among the common folk, but many of his political contemporaries were concerned about his extremism. During the 1824 election, Thomas Jefferson expressed his misgivings in a letter to Daniel Webster:

I feel much alarmed at the prospect of seeing General Jackson President. He is one of the most unfit men I know of for such a place. He has had very little respect for laws and constitutions, and is, in fact, an able military chief.

His passions are terrible. When I was President of the Senate, he was Senator; and he could never speak on account of the rashness of his feelings. I have seen him attempt it repeatedly, and as often choke with rage. His passions are, no doubt, cooler now; he has been much tried since I knew him, but he is a dangerous man.

During his term as President, Jackson opposed efforts to outlaw slavery in the western territories. He also banned the distribution in the southern states of printed material opposing slavery. He said the abolitionists spreading the material were monsters who should “atone for this wicked attempt with their lives.”

100 Duels

A biographer quoted Jackson as saying, “I was born for a storm, and a calm does not suit me.” As evidence of that, Jackson challenged more than 100 men to a duel.

In Jackson’s time, most duels were a show of bravado and bluster that resulted in no bloodshed, although deaths and wounds certainly occurred. But Jackson did kill one man, Charles Dickinson, a rival plantation owner with whom he had feuded for years.

Allowing Dickinson to shoot first, Jackson suffered a serious chest wound. But he stayed on his feet, took careful aim, and returned fire. Dickinson was mortally wounded.

The Death of Rachel Jackson

If being in a constant state of rage was Jackson’s default condition, the death of his wife Rachel in 1828 certainly amplified it.

The elections of 1824 and 1828 were especially nasty on both sides. Adams supporters liberally publicized Jackson’s unsavory record as a slave trader. The Adams campaign accused Jackson of cannibalizing enemy corpses, called his mother a common prostitute, and claimed his father was a mulatto.

Further, Rachel was attacked as a bigamist based on questions about the legality of her divorce from her first husband. An introverted person, she struggled to hold up under the stress of the campaigns.

Shortly after Jackson was elected President, but before he took office, Rachel began having sharp, recurring pains in her arm and shoulder. They were symptoms of a heart attack that killed her a few days later.

Reportedly, when the undertaker came to prepare Rachel for burial, aides had to pull the grief-stricken Jackson from her body.

Jackson blamed his political opponents for hastening Rachel’s death. At her funeral at The Hermitage on Christmas Eve, he told the mourners, “May God Almighty forgive her murderers. I never can.”

Rachel Jackson

Rachel in 1823.

Lack of Reverence

Some years earlier, Jackson had given Rachel a parrot named Poll. Poll was an African Grey Parrot, an intelligent bird noted for its ability to learn words and mimic sounds. They lack vocal chords, but create sounds by controlling the air they exhale.

After Rachel died, Poll became Jackson’s pet and companion. Poll was said to have an extensive vocabulary.

Jackson served two terms as President and retired to The Hermitage in 1837. He remained influential in national politics, but his health steadily declined. He died in 1845 of heart failure and other ailments.

Poll attended his master’s funeral, but only briefly. Reverend William Norment, the clergyman who presided at the funeral, later wrote:

Before the sermon and while the crowd was gathering, a wicked parrot that was a household pet got excited and commenced swearing so loud and long as to disturb the people and had to be carried from the house.

Norment said the parrot “let loose perfect gusts of cuss words” that left people “horrified and awed at the bird’s lack of reverence.”

I wonder whether Poll learned his pottymouth ways from Rachel or Andrew.

African Grey Parrot

A male African Grey Parrot.

Understandably, the word “demagogue” came to mind as I was writing this post. The website Vocabulary.com defines the word thusly:

Demagogue — A political leader who seeks support by appealing to popular passions and prejudices.

The website’s definition of the word “demagoguery” is masterful.

Demagoguery is a manipulative approach — often associated with dictators and sleazy politicians — that appeals to the worst nature of people. Demagoguery isn’t based on reason, issues, and doing the right thing; it’s based on stirring up fear and hatred to control people. For example, a politician who stirs up a fear of immigrants to distract from other issues is using demagoguery. Demagoguery is one of the most negative aspects of politics, but it’s also one that’s all too common.

Andrew Jackson and Donald Trump: two demagogues at the top of their game.

Trump-Jackson-2

 

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(Note: I chose “We Will Rock You” as a Tune o’ the Day because I heard a toddler belting it out in the Jefferson Kroger recently. That kid, he rocked.)

After a concert in 1977, guitarist Brian May of Queen wondered what audiences can do in confined spaces to express themselves. He concluded “They can clap their hands, they can stomp their feet, and they can sing.”

May decided Queen needed a song, something simple and catchy and rousing, that would cause audiences to get involved.

He said he woke up the next morning with the idea for “We Will Rock You” in his head, including the famous STOMP-STOMP-CLAP beat.

The song’s lyrics are a “three ages of man” story. In the first stanza, a boy on the streets dreams of a better life. In the second stanza, as a young man, he still struggles to make something of himself. In the third, he is a defeated old man whose life went nowhere.

(I tried to figure out what the energetic “we will rock you” chorus has to do with the three verses, but I gave up.)

Queen recorded the song in an empty London church because the band liked the acoustics. May said he found some old boards under the stairs that “just seemed ideal to stomp on.”

The stomping was done separately in a studio as the band, the staff, and the recording engineers all joined in to create and record the distinctive STOMP-STOMP-CLAP. No actual drums were used.

Creating a classic rock anthem is a lot of work.

Queen

We Will Rock You

By Queen, 1977
Written by Brian May

Buddy, you’re a boy,
Make a big noise,
Playing in the street,
Gonna be a big man someday.

You got mud on your face, You big disgrace,
Kickin’ your can all over the place, singin’

We will, we will rock you.
We will, we will rock you.

Buddy, you’re a young man,
Hard man,
Shouting in the street,
Gonna take on the world someday.

You got blood on your face, you big disgrace,
Waving your banner all over the place.

We will, we will rock you.
Sing it!
We will, we will rock you.

Buddy, you’re an old man,
Poor man,
Pleading with your eyes,
Gonna make you some peace someday.

You got mud on your face, big disgrace,
Somebody better put you back into your place.

We will, we will rock you.
Sing it!
We will, we will rock you.
Everybody!
We will, we will rock you.
Hmm
We will, we will rock you.

Alright.

 

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Last week in the Jefferson Kroger, I was met by a curious sight: approaching me in the aisle was a woman pushing a grocery cart in which was seated a toddler, a boy, who had both arms in the air and was bobbing his head rhythmically.

The sight became curiouser when the child burst into song.

We will
We will
WOCK YOU!

His head bobbed to the beat. He pumped his upraised fists in time to the music playing in his head.

Frankly, he looked barely old enough to talk, much less sing rock songs. But there he was, belting out a tune nicely on key.

A pause of several seconds followed, then

We will
We will
WOCK YOU!

A pause of several seconds followed, then

We will
We will
WOCK YOU!

By then, our carts had passed in the aisle, and they were behind me. Even after I turned down the next aisle, I could still hear the boy singing heartily.

We will
We will
WOCK YOU!

A pause of several seconds followed, then

We will
We will
WOCK YOU!

Eventually, the refrain ceased. Either he was too far away to be heard or his mom shut him up.

Oddly, the mom seemed focused on her shopping and oblivious to the boy’s performance. I wondered briefly if she might be hearing-impaired, but decided that was improbable.

Anyway, the child was truly in the zone, and I was happy for him. It’s good to, you know, let it all hang out.

Keep on rockin’ while you can, kid. The inhibitions, insecurity, and self-consciousness will bubble up soon enough.

We Will Wock You

Wocking the Jefferson Kroger.

The Queen classic We Will Rock You is an interesting song for various reasons, which I will address in my next post, a Tune o’ the Day.

 

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Useless Facts

More “Useless Facts for Inquiring Minds.”

Shellac is used as a wood primer/sealant and also as a waxy coating on food. Jelly beans are coated with shellac to seal them and make them shiny. It’s also a fact that shellac is a natural substance, not a manufactured material.

Shellac is secreted by female lac bugs (Kerria lacca) in India and Thailand. The insects leave tunnel-like tubes on tree branches. The tubes are scraped off, refined to get rid of bark and stuff, and turned into commercial shellac to coat your jelly beans.

The rhinoceros family has five living species: white rhinos, black rhinos, Sumatran rhinos, Indian rhinos, and Javan rhinos. The first three have two horns, and the last two have one horn.

The Hudson River flows 315 miles from upstate New York south to the Atlantic Ocean. However, the lower Hudson is a tidal estuary, so its direction of flow depends on the tide. On the incoming tide, the Hudson flows back upstream about 160 miles.

The closest living relative of the elephant is the hyrax, a small, rotund mammal native to Africa. Hyraxes resemble plump rabbits with short ears and no tail. Manatees also are related to elephants, but hyraxes are closer kin.

Hyrax

The E Street Band has been Bruce Springsteen’s backing band since 1972. It is so named because the mother of keyboardist David Sancious allowed the band to rehearse in her garage at 1107 E Street in Belmar, New Jersey.

The U.S. two-dollar bill was introduced in 1862 and, in spite of chronic lack of demand, remained in circulation until 1966. It was brought back in 1976 for the Bicentennial and remains in circulation today, even though the public still largely ignores it. Two-dollar bills account for one percent of the U.S. currency in circulation.

The legend of Atlantis, the island nation that fell out of favor with the gods and sank into the sea, originated with Plato. The Greek philosopher used the story as an allegory about the hubris of nations. He said Atlantis began as an advanced utopian society, but the people became greedy and petty, and they paid the price in “one terrible night of fire and earthquakes.”

During its century as a British colony, Barbados had a flag that featured an image of Britannia (the female personification of Britain) holding a trident. When Barbados gained its independence in 1966, it adopted a flag that symbolized the break by depicting only the head of the trident.

Flags

The U.S. Navy decommissioned its last battleship in 1992. Currently, the Navy has 283 ships in active service: 10 aircraft carriers, 9 amphibious assault ships, 22 cruisers, 3 near-shore combat ships, 62 destroyers, 17 frigates, 71 submarines, and 89 support vessels. Oh, and 3,700 aircraft.

The Outerbridge Crossing is one of three vehicular bridges between New Jersey and Staten Island. Opened in 1928, it is named for Eugenius H. Outerbridge, the first chairman of the port authority. It is called a “crossing” because the “Outerbridge Bridge” sounds ridiculous. Most people just call it “the Outerbridge.”

Nebraska native Thurl Ravenscroft (1914-2005) was an accomplished bass singer and voice actor who did his first voice-over as Monstro the whale in the 1940 film Pinocchio. You know Ravenscroft as the voice of Tony the Tiger and for singing “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch.”

The Labrador Retriever originated in the 1500s in Newfoundland, not Labrador. Labs are a cross between the Newfoundland breed and the St. Johns water dog. They were called Labradors, I assume, because we already had Newfoundlands.

Labs

 

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May

By Sara Teasdale

Teasdale ST

Sarah Trevor Teasdale (1884-1933)

The wind is tossing the lilacs,
The new leaves laugh in the sun,
And the petals fall on the orchard wall,
But for me the spring is done.

Beneath the apple blossoms
I go a wintry way,
For love that smiled in April
Is false to me in May.

———

Fog

By Carl Sandburg

Sandburg

Carl August Sandburg (1878-1967)

The fog comes
on little cat feet.

It sits looking
over harbor and city
on silent haunches
and then moves on.

———

Winter Morning Poem

By Ogden Nash

Nash O

Frederic Ogden Nash (1902-1971)

Winter is the king of showmen,
Turning tree stumps into snow men
And houses into birthday cakes
And spreading sugar over lakes.
Smooth and clean and frosty white,
The world looks good enough to bite.
That’s the season to be young,
Catching snowflakes on your tongue!
Snow is snowy when it’s snowing.
I’m sorry it’s slushy when it’s going.


———

Legacies

By Nikki Giovanni

Giovanni-n

Yolande Cornelia Giovanni Jr. (B. 1943)

her grandmother called her from the playground
yes, ma’am”
i want chu to learn how to make rolls” said the old
woman proudly
but the little girl didn’t want
to learn how because she knew
even if she couldn’t say it that
that would mean when the old one died she would be less
dependent on her spirit so
she said
i don’t want to know how to make no rolls”
with her lips poked out
and the old woman wiped her hands on
her apron saying “lord
these children”
and neither of them ever
said what they meant
and i guess nobody ever does

———

Autumn

By T. E. Hulme

Hulme-te

Thomas Ernest Hulme (1883-1917)

A touch of cold in the Autumn night
I walked abroad,
And saw the ruddy moon lean over a hedge
Like a red-faced farmer.
I did not stop to speak, but nodded,
And round about were the wistful stars
With white faces like town children.

 

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