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Useless Trivia
Updated 587 Days AgoPublic

Welcome to the archive of Useless Trivia! @jcmcdonald has been writing the Useless Trivia column in the Check-In company newsletter for for the past few years.

See the latest entry, and browse previous Useless Trivia entries below.

04 January 2021

Since camels spend so much time in the desert, they need a way to protect their eyes from a sandblasting by the wind.

For this reason, they have three eyelids. The first two — the upper and lower eyelid — both have eyelashes, like most mammals. The third eyelid, which closes sideways, is somewhat transparent so they can close it and still be able to see. It's like having a pair of built-in goggles.

In other words, one of the most reliable vehicles for crossing the desert has built-in windshield wipers.

13 Oct 2020

The internet lied (again): bats do NOT always turn left when leaving a cave. Scientific observation has proven that bats have no preference which way they turn when leaving a cave.

There's no disputing that they like hanging upside-down, though. Why? Simply put, bats are not birds — they are built differently, and have heavier bones. Birds and insects actually jump to take off from the ground, but this is harder for a bat. Thus, bats hang upside, so when they want to fly, they need only let go of their perch to get in the air, and start flapping.


08 Sep 2020

Most reptiles, including the iguana, as well as many types of fish and shark, have a literal third eye, generally located on the top of their head. This retinal structure, known as a parietal eye, is covered by skin, and isn't particularly noticeable in most species. It cannot form full images, as it works differently from a normal eye, but it is photoreceptive, or light-sensitive.

The exact reason why some creatures have a parietal eye is unknown. Some scientists think it may allow them to know what time of day it is, or else help them thermoregulate by moving into or out of sunlight.


01 Sep 2020

In 1876, the town of Liège, Belgium decided to try a novel approach to mail delivery: train thirty-seven cats to do it. The plan seemed brilliant to its inventors: tie waterproof bags containing the mail to the cats, set them in a field, and let them make their way back home. The assumption was that it would be a fast and safe way of delivering mail between towns.

Whoever thought it up clearly had never lived with a cat.

In the initial results, one cat made it home in 5 hours, and the rest took their time about it, arriving at least within 24 hours. Good enough, said the Belgian Society for the Elevation of the Domestic Cat, who had dreamed up this scheme. But as with most schemes involving training a cat, it didn't work out (although no one remembers why.)


17 August 2020

Queen Elizabeth II of England is, to date, the only female member of the royal family to serve in the military: she was a mechanic during World War II! The then-Princess Elizabeth was a member of the Auxiliary Territorial Service, where she learned how to repair and drive military vehicles. By her father's orders, she was to be treated as any other officer, instead of being given special treatment.

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Image Credit: Queen Elizabeth II by William Horton, National Portrail Gallery


28 July 2020

When Queen Victoria married Prince Albert, they received many luxurious wedding presents. Perhaps the strangest was a 3 meter-wide, 500 kilogram wheel of cheddar cheese, which had been made from the milk of 750 cows. The farmers who presented it to her asked to put the cheese on display, to which she graciously consented.

The trouble began after the exhibition, when the Queen didn't want the cheese back. The farmers quarreled over the cheddar, and wound up in a Court of Chancery to decide who should get it. From there, the trail goes cold. Maybe the giant cheese was eaten by a wandering herd of barristers.


29 June 2020

Mud might scientifically make you happier, not just because of that cool, squidgy feeling between your toes, but because of beneficial bacteria found in soil. The microbe Mycobacterium vaccae is a beneficial bacteria that has been found to increase seratonin levels in the brain, similar to the prescription drug Prozac. Scientists have even found ways to use this bacteria as a form of immunotherapy.

The people of Uganda first discovered this benefit of mud, before the bacteria responsible was even isolated. The bacteria is so named because it was ultimately traced to cow dung (lovely, right?)

This doesn't mean you should go eating your mud pies, but you should definitely consider getting into dirt more often.

15 June 2020

On this day, 805 years ago, King John of England signed the Magna Carta, which had been drafted by the Archbishop of Canterbury in an attempt to stave off an open conflict between the unpopular King and a group of angry barons. This document is notable for limiting the power of government and providing a formal framework for accountability, something unheard of at the time.

Ironically, the Magna Carta didn't last long. No one held up their part of the deal, and the Pope annulled the document. It would make a comeback with King Henry III, John's son, who used a modified form of the Magna Carta to build popularity, and renewed it repeatedly. Succeeding kings would also reissue the document, until it became a keystone in English statute law. It would go on to inspire many similar documents, including the Constitution of the United States.

The Magna Carta was never meant to be repealed, but the document was a product of its time. Despite its historical importance, its immediate relevance shrank as the centuries wore on. By 1969, all but three clauses of the document had been replaced or repealed in the UK.

01 June 2020

I don't need to tell you that napping while going for a stroll is a bad idea. But according to recent research, frigatebirds never got that memo!

These seabirds are unusual in that they cannot swim, meaning that unless they come across dry land, their cross-ocean flights are not going to involve sleeping. But these birds aren't worried...they can sleep while flying!

Impressive as that is, it isn't quite the same as taking a complete snooze mid-flight. Frigatebirds actually nap in ten-second intervals throughout the evening, adding up to a whopping 45-minutes a night of sleep. Yes, I said ten-seconds. Talk about your power naps.

What's even weirder is that they only nap with half their brain at a time, leaving the other half fully awake to avoid mid-air collisions.

It's unknown whether other birds nap while flying, but it's probable. The record-holder for the longest flight is one Alpine Swift, which didn't touch ground for 200 days. Surely she has some way of catching Zs mid-air.


25 May 2020

You should always know where your towel is, at least according to the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. Hotels certainly want to know where theirs are. In an effort to ostensibly track when they need to order more linens — and more likely, to prevent theft — some luxury hotels have begun sewing washable RFID chips into their linens. If the towel hitches a ride out the door, an alarm will be triggered. It must be working, because the hotels that use this new technology report that they saved $15,000 after adopting the system.

If you're going to traverse the galaxy, bring a towel. Just make sure it's yours.


04 May 2020

"Owls are the only birds that can see the color blue!" touts one trivia factoid. (By the way, "factoid" means "false fact".) In researching this for this week's edition of Useless Trivia, I learned that not only can most birds see blue just fine, they can see more color than us...specifically, most birds can see ultraviolet light!

Before scientists first found this out — rather accidentally while studying pigeons — it was just assumed that birds saw like we did. But as more researchers have begun studying how birds actually see the world, it has explained quite a bit of bird behavior: everything from how they find food to how they select a mate, from avoiding danger to feeding their chicks.

It just goes to show, you can't understand someone's point of view until you walk a mile in their...ahem...feathers.


13 April 2020

You think you have a weird collection? Karl De Smedt probably has you beat. He runs an archive of bread starters from all over the world, storing them in his Sourdough Library in Belgium. Starters are the crucial ingredient in the ever-popular sourdough bread, of which there are many varieties! A starter consists of a "mother" — wild yeast and beneficial bacteria — and the taste depends on what ingredients are used to create and "feed" the mother.

De Smedt's purpose for the archive is similar to that of the Svalgard Seed Vault: if we ever lose this critical piece of baking knowledge, the samples in the vault can be studied to rebuild that knowledge.

The physical Sourdough Library is closed to the public, but you can take a virtual tour here.


06 April 2020

The traditional Scottish pattern known as tartan is not only a symbol of their national heritage, but also symbols of their clan! Each clan has its own exact sett, or pattern, of tartan. Historically, offshoots of a clan would add a stripe of their own color over the parent clan's sett, meaning that an official tartan could show the history of a clan...if you knew how to read it. Cloth weavers had pattern sticks to show the exact order of colored threads.

Unfortunately, after 1746, the British government was determined to crush the Highlander culture to prevent uprisings, and to that end they made wearing tartan a capital offense. The weavers, their pattern sticks, and much of the original tartan was lost between that time and 1785, when the ban was repealed. So, when tartan came back into vogue in 1822, thanks to the enthusiasm and encouragement of King George IV, many clans had to reinvent their tartans from scratch.

To create some order out of this chaos, the Registers at Lyons Court currently maintains an official registry of tartans, and all tartans have to be registered with them.


24 March 2020

Potatoes in spaaaaaaaaaaaace!

Apparently, Ken Ralston, one of the special effects guys on Star Wars, managed to sneak a couple of odd things into the movies, one of which was an Idaho potato in place of an asteroid in The Empire Strikes Back.

According to legend, another one of the asteroids was a shoe...except that proved to be an underwhelming falsehood. In fact, Ralston's shoes were slipped in as spaceships in Return of the Jedi! Apparently, they're so well disguised that, amidst all of the ships buzzing around the moon of Endor, no one can spot his shoes. According to author J.W. Rinzler, in his book chronicling the making of the film, Ralston had also apparently slipped wads of gum and a yogurt container into the same scene, and then went and showed it to George Lucas. Lucas only noticed the yogurt container. Everything else made it into the final film, so masterfully disguised that no one but Ralston knows where they are...and he's not talking!

09 March 2020

Humans cannot breathe and swallow at the same time. (You just tried it, didn't you?) This is because of the epiglottis, a flap of skin in your throat which keeps you from inhaling food and water.

Hiccups are caused when a spasm in the diaphragm causes the epiglottis to close suddenly, and at the wrong moment. least that's what we think, but it may also be the other way around. For everything science has figured out, the mechanics behind hiccups still eludes us.

But speaking from personal experience, the spoonful of sugar does not stop hiccups. Sorry.

25 February 2020

Back in 1939, the legislature for the state of Maine once considered a law which would make it illegal to use tomatoes in clam chowder. That's some serious dedication...but then, New Englanders feel strongly about their chowder!

If you have any doubts, ask @bdlovy.

17 February 2020

Speaking of batteries, if you ever watch commercials, can you answer this question? What company is the pink bunny the mascot of?

If you said "Energizer", you'd be....*totally wrong!*

Energizer actually stole the pink bunny from Duracell, first using it in a 1989 commercial parodying Duracell's already popular Pink Bunny commercials. While their design was different, it was clearly a knock-off of Duracell's established mascot. Duracell filed a dispute against Energizer in 1990, but wound up settling out of court in 1992. Energizer gained the exclusive right to market with the pink bunny in the U.S. and Canada.

Duracell tried to relaunch use of their original Pink Bunny in U.S.-based marketing in 2016. Energizer filed a lawsuit, but that proved to be their undoing. A judge reviewed the case, and decided that Energizer had absolutely no valid exclusivity claim to the Pink Bunny, seeing as they'd openly stolen the idea from Duracell. While they could continue using their now-established Drumming Bunny mascot, they had to let Duracell use their original mascot again.

Justice was served, and pink bunnies once again abound. No surprise there; rabbits multiply.

In case you're curious (or unfamiliar with the commercials?), here's Duracell's original commercial from 1983:

...and here's Energizer's 1989 original parody:

04 February 2020

You've probably heard the saying "A cat always lands on its feet." Cats are, indeed, very good at landing on their feet, due to their flexible spines and unusual physiology that allow them to pivot mid-air.

Apparently, though, the height matters. According to studies, a cat is safer falling off the twentieth floor of a building than the seventh floor! In the time it takes to fall eight stories, the cat has generally had sufficient time to relax and change positions for a safe landing.

I just want to know what sort of studies involve pitching cats off tall buildings.*

In a somewhat unrelated topic, artist John Frazee once suggested the buttered cat paradox. Given the adages "a cat always lands on its feet" and "buttered toast always falls butter-side down", Frazee proposed that if you strap a piece of buttered toast, butter-side-up, to the back of a cat, and then drop the cat, shouldn't the result be perpetual motion?

I doubt the university scientists thought of this before they started chucking cats out a window.* Thankfully, student animator Kimberly Miner did think of it...

*No animals were harmed. We hope.

27 January 2020

According to one trivia source, if you shuffle a complete deck of cards, the particular sequence of cards has never been seen before in the known universe.

Personally, I feel like this is a dubious claim. However, with 52!, or 8.06581751709439e+67, possible combinations, it's certainly possible that any one sequence is unique! That's the annoying thing about true random, though: it's random. Getting two identical outcomes is just as plausible as getting two dissimilar outcomes.

13 January 2020

What do sweaterdresses, aftercataracts, and tesseradecades have in common...besides the fact that you have no idea what any of those words mean? They're the longest words you can type with only your left hand.

Yes, go ahead, try it out. You know you want to.

"Stewardesses" is commonly thought to hold that title, but it's two letters short of the leaders.

In other pointless news, "spoonfeed" is thought to be the longest word in the English language where all the letters are in reverse alphabetical order.

06 january 2020

If you've ever enjoyed a cup of drip coffee, you can thank Melitta Bentz, a German housewife who was sick of grounds in her morning coffee, overbrewed coffee from the stovetop percolator, and the annoyance of washing cloth filters. She punched a hole in the bottom of a copper pot and improvised the first paper coffee filter from a piece of her son's blotting paper, creating the first cup of pour-over coffee! The result was so successful, she decided to make a business out of it, founding her own business. She wasn't just known for her innovations, but also as a concientious and caring business owner.

Today, the Melitta Group is still owned by her grandchildren, and remains one of the leading producers of paper coffee filters.

SOURCES: Wikipedia, New York Times

02 December 2019

In 17th century China, pickled fish and spices were made into a condiment called 鮭汁(pronounced kê-chiap). It made its way to Malay, where European explorers discovered this "kay-chup" and took the recipe home. For years, the British made it from mushrooms.

But it still didn't include tomatoes; that addition first appeared around the early the 1800s. An 1817 British cookbook published a recipe for tomato catsup, which called for the anchovies indicative of the recipe's origin. Eventually, the inclusion of fish was dropped from the recipe, leaving us with the tomato ketchup we know today.


25 November 2019

To most people, popcorn and movie theaters seem to go together. This wasn't always the case!

In the beginning, having food and beverages in the theater was frowned upon. Yet, as people waited outside, street vendors spotted an opportunity: selling hot popcorn to cold, hungry, and impatient theatergoers.

At first, the theater owners weren't fans of this, but they eventually caved to the popularity of popcorn while waiting for the movie, and saw an opportunity to cash in. They began selling it themselves, unfortunately undercutting the independent vendors out in the process.

One vendor who survived this was Julia Brandon, who secured permission to sell popcorn in the lobby, and her business boomed right on through the Great Depression!


27 February 2018

Strawberries have a complicated origin. The wild European variety is first recorded to be used medicinally during Roman times. Various species appear throughout Europe, Asia, and the Americas.

The Chilean strawberry, long cultivated by the locals, was brought to France in the 1500s, and this was actually how we discovered that some plants produce male-only or female-only flowers; the Chilean strawberry could not produce fruit unless cross-bred with the European or North American wild strawberry! This cross-breeding produced what is now our modern garden strawberry.

13 February 2018

There's a lot of debate about who actually invented the radio, as it was the combination of many people's work.

Radio waves were first discovered by Heinrich Hertz. The first device for detecting them, called the coherer, was created by Édouard Branly in 1893, although his invention was not sensitive enough to provide the foundation for radio transmission.

Sir Oliver Lodge made the first critical discoveries about wireless transmission, publicly demonstrating wireless transmission of Morse code in 1894. John Stone Stone (yes, that's spelled correctly) made important inventions creating the fixed-frequency transmitter and antenna. Later that year, Indian doctor J.C. Bose made significant progress towards the modern antenna, and was the first to demonstrate longer range transmissions (about a mile). Alexander Stepanovich Popov created a "lightning detector," which used radio waves to detect lightning strikes in forests. He hoped to achieve long-distance transmission. Nicolai Tesla used radio waves in 1898 to create the first remote-controlled boat.

Marconi, who is widely credited with the invention of radio, was determined by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1943 to have made no significant invention over the work of his predecessors; however Marconi's patents were not overturned. Some consider him to have been the first to actually apply the various inventions to create viable radio, and others consider him a patent troll. Only history knows.

06 February 2018

On April 1st 1997, the Wheel of Fortune announcer introduced the host...Alex Trebek. Seeing as Pat Sajak had hosted Jeopardy that day, it seemed only fitting, but the surprises weren't over. Pat's wife, Lesly Sajak, came out in the place of Vanna White, and then the guests were announced: Pat and Vanna!

The normal hosts of Wheel of Fortune played their own game for charity - Pat for the Boy Scouts of America, and Vanna for the American Cancer Society. Among the banter between the game show hosts, Vanna admitted she had only ever spun the wheel once before, a disadvantage that proved itself shortly...although her spins were better than Alex Trebek's on the final spin, but who can blame him? The wheel actually weighs about 2 tons.

Pat wound up solving all three of the rounds, leaving Vanna clearly in the dust. Even after giving up his own attempt at the final puzzle after Vanna had failed to solve it, he finished out with $22,750, and Vanna with only $2400. So, the two put their heads together and decided to pool their money, divide it evenly between their causes, and attempt the Bonus Round together. The board controllers even had a bit of fun messing with Lesly in the bonus round, turning letters on late, to make her cross the board or double back several times. In the end, each organization got $25,000, and everyone got a good laugh.

30 January 2018

When it comes to slug-like alien villains, none is more infamous than Star Wars' Jabba the Hutt. But in today's era of spectacular cinematic CGI, it is easy to forget all the effort that went into special effects only a few short decades ago.

Jabba the Hutt is actually a massive one-ton puppet, manned by three Jim Hensen Muppets puppeteers, plus someone to remote-control the eyes and facial expressions. Jabba even required a dedicated makeup artist. Jabba the Hutt took half a million dollars and three months to build, making it the most expensive puppet ever used in filmmaking.

All that to give us the slimiest alien crime boss of all time. Isn't cinema wonderful?

23 January 2018

If you grew up in the 70s, 80s, or even 90s, you've probably heard of Schoolhouse Rock, a series of cartoon music videos teaching multiplication facts, grammar, history, science, and other educational concepts.

This quirky little series started when advertising executive David McCall noticed that his son was having a hard time memorizing the times tables, but that he could sing Rolling Stones lyrics from memory. Realizing that music made things more memorable, McCall contacted Bob Dorough, a jazz pianist, and asked him to write a math song.

Dorough collaborated with animator Tom Yohe to produce the song and storyboard for Three is a Magic Number, which ABC executive Michael Eisner snatched up as soon as it was presented to him. The resulting 1973 album, Multiplication Rock, was later nominated for an Emmy.

One particularly odd fact is that one of the series singers, Lynn Ahrens, worked as a secretary for McCall. She would sometimes bring her guitar to the office to play during breaks. She was eventually asked to write a song for Schoolhouse Rock, which she did. After performing The Preamble and other songs for the series, Ahrens found her musical career launched, eventually landing her on Broadway.


15 January 2018

"Everybody knows" that dogs are colorblind. This is true, but their world actually isn't in total grayscale. Scientists now believe that dogs see in shades of blue, gray, and gold.

Color vision all comes down to the number and type of cone cells in the eye. We humans have three types, and plenty of them, allowing us to see a large part of the spectrum. Some creatures can actually see beyond our own range, into the UV and infrared range. Dogs, meanwhile, only have two cone cells.

Dogs also have fewer cone cells in their eyes overall. This isn't actually a disadvantage, as rod cells work better in low-light circumstances. Dogs have a higher ratio of rods-to-cones than humans do. This means dogs have excellent night vision!

Nevertheless, dogs do indeed see some colors. That means my childhood dog Bruno's world probably looked like this...

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Image ⓒ Jason C. McDonald. Color modification courtesy Colblindor

09 January 2018

The honor of creating the innovative LP record, played at 33 1/2 RPM, actually goes to Columbia Records. For years, record companies had tried and failed to put more and more music onto a single record. RCA Victor came out with a 33 1/2 RPM, but the old-style material and various other circumstances rendered the effort a relative failure.

Columbia was the first to combine a new vinyl material with the slower 33 1/2 RPM rotation speed. They worked in relative secrecy to develop the technology, but lacking a phonograph business, they needed to partner with someone else to produce the equipment for their innovation.

This is when Columbia Records approached competitor RCA Victor, actually offering to share the technology with them in exchange for RCA Victor producing the 33 1/2 RPM phonograph required. Surprisingly, RCA Victor refused! Angry that they had been beaten to the punch by Columbia, they developed and pushed their own 45 RPM records, thereby creating what we now call the "battle of the speeds". LPs and 45s were sold in direct competition to one another, joining 72 RPM and 16 RPM records. (Talk about confusing!)

Finally in 1947, Columbia's phonograph manufacturer, Philco, announced they'd be supporting all speeds on their new phonograph models.


01 January 2018

Iceland is known for many things, ice being one of them. Being subarctic, it has very cold winters, although its summers are warmer than most of Greenland. You can find glaciers and volcanoes, both of which the land of "fire and ice" is well known for.

It's also known for bananas.

Wait, what?

Yes, Iceland is actually Europe's largest producer of bananas! No kidding. This is because Iceland has a plethora of volcanic activity, it has easy and cheap access to geothermal heat and energy. This makes it an ideal place to run tropical greenhouses, perfect for growing bananas and other warm-weather crops.

While Iceland's banana crop is small by comparison (500-2K kg a year), it is becoming very important, since Panama's banana crop is having to deal with disease and pests.

Who'd have guessed that of one of the coldest countries on earth?


12 December 2017

Did you know that gingerbread bakers were considered special? The sweet, ginger-spiced bread was introduced to Europe in 992 by an Armenian monk, who taught others how to make the treat in Bondaroy, France. Gingerbread was thought to have medicinal value (given ginger's qualities), and was produced and sold throughout France, Germany, England, Sweden, and beyond in both bakeries and pharmacies.

By the 18th century, the baker's guild had a distinct part for professional gingerbread bakers. During holidays (Christmas and Easter), these guild members were the *only* ones allowed to sell gingerbread.


05 December 2017

When you think of ninjas, you almost certainly imagine a warrior dressed in black, but nothing could be further from the reality! In feudal Japan, many low-class citizens found the need to defend themselves and their country. They trained in combat and espionage, but they never donned black uniforms to carry out their missions. They were truly invisible, because they looked and acted no different from any other commoner! Their weapons often resembled farm implements. They were virtually undetectable until they struck.

In other terms, ninjas were civilian spies and assassins. Men and women of all classes, including many farmers, were trained as ninjas.

As ninja characters began appearing in theatrical performance, they wore the full-body black outfit to represent their effective invisibility. In fact, stage hands at the time did dress this way, and the audience was completely used to this, never expecting one of those black-clad figures to actually be involved in the story.

In other words, if a ninja is dressed like a ninja, they're not actually a ninja.


28 November 2017

10-30 centimeters doesn't seem like much, but that is the depth of the Nazca Lines: massive, ancient carvings into the Peruvian desert. They were first documented in 1553 by conquistador Pedro Cieza de Leon, who thought they were trail markers. They were effectively rediscovered nearly 400 years later, in 1939, by local archaeologist Toribio Mejía Xesspe.

But the true identity and scope of the Nazca Lines was not realized until 1940, when historian Paul Kosok got an aerial view and spotted the shape of a bird. Further research revealed hundreds more shapes, patterns, and drawings.

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Scholars believe that the Nazca people indigenous to the area drew the lines between 500 BC and 500 AD, although the purpose is greatly disputed. Were these works of art meant to impress the gods? Reference charts for tracking celestial movements? Ceremonial pathways relating to water? No one really knows.

What is doubtless is that these works of art are national and world treasures. The Nazca Lines were made a World Heritage Site in 1994.

Peru isn't the only place in the world with massive geoglyphs. Over 200 of these ancient works of art can be found in the Colorado Desert, with the most famous being the Blythe Intaglios in southern California. The largest of these is a figure of a man 171 feet long. These are believed to date between 900 BC and 1200 AD.

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You've really got to admire cultures with enough foresight to make works of art that can't fully be appreciated for thousands of years.

14 November 2017

I don't know about y'all, but I love the idea of a small town, where everyone knows everyone. In today's society, this seems like a faraway ideal of the past, but there are some very small towns even in modern America, Canada and beyond.

But there are some towns - legitimately incorporated communities - which take 'small' to a whole new level. Here's a few notable examples...

TownPopulation (Year)Peak Population (Year)Size
Bonanza, Colorado16 (2010)445 (1930)0.44 sq. mi.
Anoka, Nebraska6 (2010)145 (1910)0.56 sq. mi.
Funkey, Minnesota5 (2010)210 (1900)0.5 sq. mi.
Freeport, Kansas5 (2010)161 (1910)0.2 sq. mi.
Lost Springs, Wyoming4 (2010)207 (1910)0.09 sq. mi.
Storrie, California4 (2010)?0.084 sq. mi.
Odell, New Hampshire4 (2010)82 (1940)45.2 sq. mi.
Baker, Missouri3 (2010114 (1960)0.21 sq. mi.
Gross, Nebraska2 (2010)60 (1930)0.13 sq. mi.
Monowi, Nebraska1 (2010)123 (1930)0.21 sq. mi.

Strangely, Anoka, Fukley, and Monowi are all in Boyd County, Nebraska, which otherwise has a population of 2,099 (according to the 2010 census).

Monowi is actually the only incorporated municipality in the United States with only one person in it: 83-year-old Elsie Eiler, who acts as Mayor, runs the tavern, and maintains a 5000-volume library in honor of her husband. Regular customers actually come from as far as 80 miles away to Eiler's tavern. And yes, she pays taxes to herself, although she received state funding for maintaining the town's four street lights.

Lost Springs, Wyoming used to share the distinction of having a population of one, until three people moved in between 2000 and 2010.

So, what's smaller than a one-person town? How about Jean, Nevada, with a population of zero? Yup! Although there are no residents, Jean is a real town, with a real post office and a few operational businesses, including a casino. It is located 30 miles south of Las Vegas.

There have been other super-small towns in recent history, but a few have since unincorporated. It'll be interesting to see which ones hold on, which ones grow, and which ones call it quits!

7 November 2017

You think weather right now is bad? On this day in 1940, heavy winds battered the Tacoma Narrows Bridge in Washington. The results are best appreciated seen...

In the end, no human life was lost. Sadly, a dog (😢) and a car went down with the bridge. The collapse was ultimately determined to be the result of the engineers not factoring in the aerodynamics of the gorge.

But not all the outcomes of this disaster were bad. The rubble sank to the bottom of Puget Sound, where it formed one of the world's largest artificial reefs. (Pictures here!)


24 October 2017

This week, I thought I'd share an update on last week's Useless Trivia inquiry!

Jason C, McDonald,

Thanks for getting in touch with us regarding Echo Bay (Port Radium), NWT, Canada on our 2015 Collins Wall Map.

We’re glad you enjoy using the map for learning more about the world, it’s nice to see the whole world in one go to appreciate how the places and features relate to each other.

Your information on Echo Bay is useful for helping us decide what to do in this particular case. This former mining settlement is one of many places that we have noted to consider if our current depiction is still valid, we should delete from maps or label as abandoned. There are very few settlements in this remote area so it is unlikely Echo Bay has been included at the expense of a more important town.

Any changes will be applied to our wall map and other products as they are published.

Many regards
Collins World Maps and Atlases Team

This is curious, of course, since it doesn't exactly answer how this town came to be *included* on their maps. My best guess is that it had been included from prior maps, and the fact that Echo Bay had ceased to exist just slipped by. Everyone makes mistakes, of course, but this is still something of a mystery, to which we'll never know the answer!

17 October 2017

Many of you may know that I have a giant map of the world on my office wall - a 2015 Collins Bartholomew published by Harper-Collins - so it is reasonably up-to-date. My curiosity had me looking up landmarks in Northwest Territories, Canada, when I happened on a listed town on the coast of the Great Bear Lake: Echo Bay. I thought "I wonder what life is like there?"

The answer shocked me: Echo Bay no longer exists.

In 1930, prospector Gilbert LaBine claimed the section of coast along Echo Bay, Great Bear Lake. His company, Eldorado Gold Mines Limited, opened a silver and pitchblende mine. The town of Cameron Bay formed around the mine, which reached the peak of its operations in the mid-1930s, with about 100 people living there. The Royal Mounted Police and the Hudson's Bay Company opened outposts. In 1936, the town was renamed Port Radium, at which time the population was only 30. From here on, the town gradually shrank, finally being completely abandoned in 1942, except for a few native families living in abandoned buildings.

Because of the war effort's call for uranium, the Eldorado Mine continued operations, the workers naming their settlement Port Radium, while leaving the old Cameron Bay abandoned. A fishing lodge was built in 1960. The mine finally shut down in 1982, after considerable political turmoil.

When the mine closed down, the remains of the abandoned Port Radium were almost entirely burned down, and the area remained completely unoccupied. Full remediation was completed by the Canadian government in 2007, and only a cairn and plaque remains where the town once stood. As to the region, only an old airstrip can be found inland, leftover from the mine's latter years.

This leads me to wonder why a town, abandoned since 1982, would be listed on a 2015 world map - especially one that omits several other small, present-day settlements in the Northwest Territories. Maybe this functions like a trap street - a strategic piece of fictional information intended to catch map plagiarism - or maybe the town was copied over from previous source material. My curiosity has gotten the better of me, and I've contacting Collins Bartholomew myself. I'll share any response I get.

Just call it Useless Trivia In Action. :)

10 October 2017

Ever notice how many US cities share a name with a state? Kansas City, NE; Oklahoma City, OK; Arizona City, AZ; Idaho City, ID; Washington City, UT; Utah City, UT...the list goes on. But there's one such city that I found especially interesting: California City, CA. It's odd because *it wasn't ever actually build*.

California City was the brainchild of real-estate developer and sociologist Nat Mendelsohn, who decided to build a metropolis to rival Los Angeles. In 1958, he bought a grand swath (80,000 acres) of the Mojave Desert, south of Death Valley, made plans, cut roads, and intended to create a 26-acre artificial lake. Had he succeeded, California City would have been the geographically third largest city in the state.

But it never took off. For whatever reason, relatively few people bought into the idea of California City, and the project largely failed. The city *did* incorporate on 10 December 1965 (huh, ironically, that's Ada Lovelace's 150th birthday! I did NOT plan that!) Today, the population is estimated to be about 13,707 people, and the area houses the California City Correctional Center, Edwards Air Force Base, a testing center for Kia/Hyundai, and a boron mine.

Even today, the original web of now crumbling roads that *would* have been the sprawling California City wind through the Mojave Desert. Many of these roads even have names, like Lincoln Boulevard, but the only creatures walking it are the non-human denizens of the desert.

But maybe this won't be true forever. California City is the 12th fastest growing city in the United States. Maybe someday, our great-grandchildren will take a stroll down the bustling Lincoln Boulevard...or maybe they'll just be standing in the middle of the Mojave Desert, scratching their heads. Only time will tell.


1 August 2017

In 1783, French paper manufacturers Joseph-Michael and Jacques-Ètienne Montgolfier brothers invented the first hot air balloon. The unmanned 33-foot balloon, made from silk and lined with paper, stayed aloft for 10 minutes, to the amazement of spectators. It traveled more than a mile from the market in Annonay where they launched it. With the help of wallpaper manufacturer Jean-Baptiste Réveillion, they created another balloon to demonstrate to King Louis XVI.

Later, they tested the idea of passengers by sending up a sheep - whose physiology was thought to be similar to that of a human - as well as a duck and a rooster as a control in the experiment. The balloon landed safely two miles away, proving the potential for travel. On October 15, 1783, Jean-François Pilâtre de Rozier became the first passenger in a tethered hot air balloon. A few weeks later, he joined military officer Marquis d'Arlandes in the first untethered flight. Pilâtre de Rozier would also become the first person to die in a hot-air balloon on June 15, 1785, when his balloon exploded as he attempted to cross the English Channel.

At the time of the first flight, the brothers Montgolfier did not know why the hot air balloon worked. They thought that the flame produced a new sort of lighter-than-air gas, which they called Montgolfier gas. In fact, it was merely the heated air that kept the balloon aloft. This was soon discovered, and two months after the initial flight, Jacques Alexandre César Charles successfully launched a balloon with hydrogen gas.

25 July 2017

Most people know that tomatoes are in the fruit family, but did you know that squash is as well? Cucumber, pumpkin, zucchini, and winter squash are all fruit. That explains zucchini bread.

The primary difference is that any produce containing seeds is a fruit, while non-seedy items such as celery and broccoli are vegetables. Potatoes and carrots are also considered vegetables, though they're more specifically tubers.

This also means that hot peppers are if a wily science nerd offers you a "mixed fruit pie", be very careful....

18 July 2017

In August 1911, Paris was in a frenzy. Something had been stolen. They turned the museum that housed it upside-down in their search and questioned anyone they could think of. Even Pablo Picasso was interrogated, according to one version of events!

The missing item? The Mona Lisa! Some thief had absconded with one of the most famous paintings in the world in a heist that sounds like something out of Operation SpyRat.

The police could find no trace until a wealthy art collector received a letter offering the return of the painting, to Italy instead of France, for a fee. A meeting was arranged, the authenticity of the Mona Lisa confirmed, and before long police had Vincenzo Peruggia, alias Leonard Vincenzo, in custody.

The heist had been simple. The gallery had been empty, and all Peruggia had to do was dress in a painter's smock, take down the Mona Lisa, remove it from its frame, roll it up, and leave. It hadn't been Peruggia's first descent into crime, and apparently his last. After a year and 15 days in prison, he opened a hardware store in Paris. To the day he died, he never saw the theft as wrong, instead calling himself a "patriot".

As to the Mona Lisa, she's safely behind impregnable, bulletproof glass under high security where she belongs.


11 July 2017

When “Friends of Benjamin Franklin House” began renovations on the former home of Benjamin Franklin in London, they made a shocking discovery - there was a massive assortment of human bones buried in the basement. Whose were they? How did they get there?

After an investigation by the London Police and London’s Institute of Archaeology, they had a "suspect" - William Hewson, presently considered the father of hematology, who had been living there at Benjamin Franklin's invitation.

The bones were not, as had been feared by some, those of murder victims, but rather cadavers Hewson had been studying. Trouble was, legal cadavers were rare in that time, and the need far exceeded the availability, meaning Hewson may have had to resort to paying grave robbers, which would also explain why he would have to rebury the bodies under the house to hide them from the authorities.

As is usually the trouble with history, we don't know whether this version of events is exactly right. What we do know is (a) Hewson was living there, (b) the bodies were definitely part of his studies, and (c) he had to hide them for some reason. Whether Ben knew is anyone's guess. Since he was seldom home, there was ample opportunity for Hewson to conceal his actions; yet, Ben also had a history of supporting some pretty weird things.


05 July 2017

When Queen Victoria married Prince Albert, received many luxurious wedding presents. Perhaps the strangest was a 3 meter-wide, 500 kilogram wheel of cheddar cheese, which had been made from the milk of 750 cows. The farmers who presented it to her asked her to put the cheese on display, to which she consented. However, she never took it back and ate it.

Hmm, I wonder who did? I would've just eaten if before it had a chance to be put on display. (I love cheese).

27 June 2017

For decades, Minnesota's Judge C. R. Magney State Park has held a secret. Devil's Kettle, a dual waterfall on the Brule River. One waterfall spilled into the river, and the other into a hole. Local legend says that nothing that goes into the hole ever comes out, and years of experimentation seems to prove this point. No matter what comes in, nothing ever comes out anywhere. The local geography seemed to rule out caves and lava tubes, so where did all that stuff go?

Finally, hydrologist Jeff Green and retired professor Calvin Alexander decided to measure the volume of water flowing into and out of Devil's Kettle. They found no notable difference - so where had everything gone? It is thought that the force of the water in the hole is such that anything thrown in is completely pulverized. Dyes become too diluted to be seen, and the huge batch of ping-pong balls thrown in were pounded to smithereens. To prove the theory, Green and Alexander are planning to use a dye that is still visible once diluted.


6 June 2017

The concept of the yo-yo toy has been around for centuries. However, the term "yo-yo" is actually a Filipino word first documented in the early 1860s, meaning "come-come," and not even referring to the toy.

In the 1920s, Pedro Flores, a Filipino migrant working as a bellhop in Santa Monica, brought his love of the Filipino version of the toy to the U.S. He would play with it during his lunch breaks, which would bring a crowd (ergo, the toy's later name). He started a small business to manufacture the toys.

In 1929, entrepreneur Donald Duncan purchased the company from Flores, added the now-familiar slip string to the design, and began marketing the "O-Boy Yo-Yo Toy". It quickly caught on, selling millions of units. However, while 1962 saw the company's greatest success (45 million units sold), various business decisions at the time had burned up too much profit. Duncan's company began focusing on making parking meters instead. Eventually, the yo-yo design and brand was sold to The Flambeau Plastic Company.

Today, in fact, is Pedro Flores' birthday, thus why this is Yo-Yo Day.


30 May 2017

In 1751, the British government decided to switch from the Julian Calendar, a relic of the Roman Empire, to the Gregorian Calendar we are now so familiar with. However, there was a problem - the calendars were obviously not the same, and we would have to fast-forward time to make the an entire eleven days! (And here we complain about Daylight Savings Time).

September 2nd 1752, by the Julian Calendar, would be the last day on the old system - and the next day would be the 14th of September 1752! The populace was quite angry over what they viewed as a theft of eleven days, and rioted in the streets the next day.

From my classes on intercultural communication, that would be because the European cultures are "monochronic", meaning that they view time as a commodity. For "polychronic" cultures, such as seen in South America, among other places, time is viewed as far less rigid - they don't "spend" time, "waste" time, or "invest" time - they just do what they do when they do it, and everyone's cool with it. Hawaii's traditional culture is polychronic, thus where the (in)famous "Island Time" mindset comes from.

Anyhow, people got over the "loss" of those eleven days, which retrospectively had no real impact on anyone, as no actual time traveling had occurred. The inconveniences of having to adjust calendars, appointments, and whatnot were soon forgotten, and we now hardly remember the days before the Gregorian Calendar.

Humans are weird.


16 May 2017

While Charles Dickens became an oft-quoted author, one of his contemporaries has achieved the same, in a considerably less desirable manner. Edward Bulwer-Lytton, a 19th century author of over 30 books, plays, and books of poetry, has been quoted to the point of cliché, without the pleasure of his name or works being as widely recognized as his friend Dickens.

You may have heard of his name, however - it is presently attached to the annual Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest, which is dedicated to BAD writing, which is quite unfortunate, as many of the well-read consider Bulwer-Lytton to be generally a very good author; his misfortune was due to being the first to use the opening phrase "It was a dark and stormy night," before rattling on in one of the most infamous run-on sentences, which appears in his 1830 novel Paul Clifford; and yes, the run-on sentence you are reading right now is an intentional English joke.

Bulwer-Lytton's generally anonymous quotability carries over to some other famous lines he coined, such as "The pen is mightier than the sword," "The pursuit of the almighty dollar," and "The great unwashed."

On a marginally related subject, his historic family home (which has been in his family since 1490) served as a set in Batman, The Great Muppet Caper, The King's Speech and Harry Potter.

Sometimes, you just wind up with a dark and stormy writing career.


9 May 2017

It is hard to determine exactly when socks were invented, largely because it depends on your definition. The idea of wrapping one's feet is not new - it has been done for all of recorded history.

The Greek poet Hesoid mentioned socks in his writings (hmm, that could become bad poetry so easily...) around the 8th century. These kinds of socks were called "piloi", which were made from matted animal hair. Meanwhile, the Romans wrapped their feet in leather or woven fabric, though this later became a kind of sewn fabric sock called the "udone," which was pulled over the foot much like our current socks are. (Sandals were made differently.) Meanwhile, the earliest instance of knit socks were found in 3rd-6th century A.D. Egyptian tombs. I guess they didn't want to enter the afterlife without their socks.

"Hose" was invented in the Middle Ages, though there were no feet on hose until around the 12th century. Tights were invented in 1490 when breeches and hose were combined. The Scottish preferred knitted hose, which found its way to France. (Check out the source article for some weird history on the knitting machine.)

By the 1590s, colorful hose was a major fashion statement in Switzerland and Germany. Men's socks became popular in Spain shortly afterwards, as a sign of wealth. By the 17th century, cotton came into use, with nylon following in the 20th century. By the 1920s, argyle socks were popular with men, but after that, our common white sock became the favorite.


2 May 2017

Pink is not scientifically possible.

That is to say, it cannot naturally appear in the color spectrum. It is the combination of red and purple, which while perfectly possible with paints and on the computer, cannot exactly happen with light. Red is at the low end of the color spectrum, below which we have infrared, radio, and other non-visible wavelengths. Purple, or violet, is at the high end of the color spectrum, above which we have ultraviolet, microwaves, gamma rays, and the like. Red and purple can never actually meet.

So how is it that we see the result of this seemingly possible meeting between red and purple as pink? One theory is that our brain combines red and purple light being reflected at it as the color pink, making it the fabrication of our minds. Others argue, however, that all color is technically a fabrication of our brains, so pink shouldn't be singled out as impossible.

At the end of the day, however, the eraser on my desk is still pink to my eyes, and I really don't care whether that is a fabrication of my mind or not.


25 April 2017

We take our decimal (base-10) counting system for granted. Most of us have learned it and know it well. However, there are a number of groups in the world that believe we shouldn't be using base-10, but rather base-12, known as duodecimal or dozenal, for all of our math. The key argument for base-12 is that 12 can be evenly divided in half (6), thirds (4), fourths (3), and so on, while base-10 gives us some pretty weird results for common divisions (10/3=oy vey).

Apparently this goes back to the French Revolution, when there was an argument over weights and measures. One group wanted to use base-12 because they could divide common units by 3 or 4 and get a whole number. A committee considered and dismissed the idea, citing that complexities of the switch would not be worth it. They instead created the metric system, which used a standardized base-10 for everything.

The debate continues, with the Dozenal Society of America being one of the more organized groups advocating the base-12 counting system. However, the movement has itself been plagued with internal strife, with the system being reinvented by each group to support it, with new names and digits, over and over and over.

Base-12 itself may be useful in some situations, especially measurement, but the common argument against it still holds water: switching the entire world to a new base for all math would be a disaster. Thankfully, in this age of computers, converting between bases is pretty simple, and the math is the same for both systems, so there's no reason why they can't each have their place.

Personally, I like hexadecimal, but that's just me. :)

18 April 2017

Bonsai trees have been an art form in Asia for centuries. It started in China around 600 or 700 AD, where bonsai trees were parts of meticulous miniature landscapes. The art eventually found its way to Japan during the Kamakura Period (1192-1333 AD). Many people believe that bonsai trees are genetically dwarfed, but they are in fact ordinary trees, such as pine, maple, and azalea. Careful pruning of the branches and roots dwarf the tree, and then the tree is meticulously trimmed and shaped.

The art form faded some during World War II, but re-emerged in popularity when Allied forces began admiring bonsai trees. Some took classes in it, and brought the art to the United States. The art gained further popularity when it was featured in the classic film, "The Karate Kid."

The source article is definitely worth reading today. At the bottom is a picture of one of the oldest bonsai trees, the Third Shogun, which has been meticulously trimmed and maintained for five and a half centuries!


5 April 2017

Every May in Gloucestershire, England, there is a weird little tradition that has been going on (apparently) since the fifteenth century - the annual cheese rolling festival. A nine pound wheel of Double Gloucester cheese is rolled down the exceedingly-steep Cooper's Hill, and competitors scramble down the hill to catch it. Of course, the cheese always gets down there first, especially since it has been known to reach speeds of 70 mph (told you the hill was steep!) Whichever competitor reaches the bottom first gets to keep the cheese.

No one really knows how or when this weird little tradition started, though there are a myriad of theories. Some connect it to grazing rights (not sure how that works), and others claim it has roots in the pagan tradition of rolling burning brushwood down the hill to represent the New Year (not sure how that's connected either.) However it started, the residents of Gloucestershire have been chasing their cheese every May for centuries, and they don't have any plans to quit.

Of course, a mad dash down an insanely steep incline like Cooper's Hill is a recipe for disaster, and there are almost always injuries. Paramedics generally wait at the bottom to deal with the various sprains, bruises, and probably the occasional broken bone. Undeterred, there are always plenty of contenders. It would seem that Wisconsin really has nothing on this town in the cheese-lover department.

The official ceremony apparently did end in 2010, when the official committee announced a 10 pound entry fee to deal with the influx of out-of-town (and out-of-country) visitors that were crowding Cooper's Hill every year. The people of Gloucestershire did not take kindly to the entry fee, and the committee actually found themselves on the receiving end of much hostility, and even some threats (really, people?!?). The event was officially cancelled, but the town refused to let their centuries-old cheese chase end that easily, and they held the event unofficially, and without management, anyhow. They did so again in 2011, after which point the event (apparently) continued, managed, each year.

The weirdest part is, according to the counsel's website, the event was permanently cancelled in 2010, but the town still holds the event every year, and maintains their own website (

I like cheese, but maybe not enough to race down Cooper's Hill to catch it.

28 Mar 2017

The bald eagle NOT would be our national symbol, if Ben Franklin had his way. He didn't want a bird on the seal at all, apparently, though many people (including myself up until five minutes ago) believed that Franklin proposed the TURKEY as our national symbol.

Franklin actually considered the bald eagle to be a bird of "bad moral character", on account of the species' apparent habit of waiting for other birds to catch a fish, and then stealing it.

Franklin proposed, tongue in cheek, that the turkey would be a more suitable candidate for the seal. The problem is, Franklin had a habit of making jokes that only intellectuals got, and this was one of them. Daylight Savings Time was, itself, a satirical suggestion that someone took wayyyy too seriously. As is often the case with the weirder parts history, the whole story regarding Ben Franklin's objection to the eagle got blown totally out of proportion, and some historians came to believe that he seriously wanted the turkey as our national emblem - right up until the Smithsonian cleared the whole silly matter up.

History is weird.


21 Mar 2017

The whiteboard is a common staple of the office, and an integral part of most of our workflows. So, where did it come from?

The chalk blackboard had been around since 1801, though its roots go back to the 14th century writing slate, with some evidence to suggest that it dates back to the 11th century. The problem with the blackboard and the writing slate, however, was that they were not exactly easy to clean...and that SOUND of the chalk on the board!

Then the whiteboard came along and, *ahem*, wiped out the competition. Like so many invention stories, there is some debate over who exactly invented the whiteboard. One version suggests that it was invented by photographer Martin Heit in 1950. Heit would take notes on his film negatives while talking to clients on the phone, and then easily wiping the negatives clean later. He came up with the idea of a wall-mounted board that he could write on and then wipe clean with a wet tissue, but the night before he was to unveil his invention at the Chicago Merchandise Mart, his showcase burned down. Heit then sold the patent to the then-obscure company later to be renamed Dri-Mark.

The other version of the story says that in the early 1960s, Albert Stallion, an employee at a steel production company, came up with the idea for enamelled steel sheets to be used as writing boards. Stallion's coworkers ignored the idea, seeing as they produced steel, not writing boards. Stallion decided to quit his job and found his own company, MagiBoards.

Ironically, the whiteboard was before its own time. By whichever story, the whiteboard was not popular until 1975, when the dry-erase marker was invented. Finally, the whiteboard took over the market and became the standard in schools in the 90s.


14 Mar 2017

The longest word ever published in a dictionary is the 45-letter-long "pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis," which is a lung disease "caused by inhaling very fine ash and sand dust." However, this wacky word was not coined by a doctor, but rather by Everett M. Smith, the president of the National Puzzlers' League in 1935.

Meanwhile, the "longest word" by the definition of just existing would be Methionyltheronyl...isoleucine. Note that "...", as I cut out most of the 189,819 letters in the word. This entry is not published in any dictionaries, and it is disputed whether it is really a word at all, seeing as it is a chemical name. The very similar "Methionyl...serine" is the longest published word at 1909 letters.

However, the longest word that was not coined with the purpose of being long is "antidisestablishmentarianism," which for some sick and demented reason, I know how to spell. "Floccinaucinihilipilification" doesn't count for "longest non-coined word", because someone made it up as a joke, and a bunch of linguists decided to play along.

"Honorificabilitudinitatibus," meanwhile, is the longest word used by William Shakesphere in his writings. It appears in "Love's Labour's Lost," Act V, Scene I, and is spoken by the character Costard. By the way, it is also the longest word in the English language with alternating consonants and vowels.

Needless to say, players of Word4Word will NOT be required to spell these words.


7 Mar 2017

In 1983, the Durand Express, a Michigan newspaper, printed an article regarding a "dangerous chemical" - dihydrogen monoxide. This was only the first instance of warnings to the public about the insidious sounding substance, often abbreviated DHMO. Many cleverly worded, yet totally true, descriptions of this chemical led hundreds of people to demand that the chemical be banned.

In case you haven't figured it out yet, dihydrogen monoxide's chemical compound is two hydrogen, one oxygen...H2O. Yup, people were duped into demanding that WATER be banned and regulated! It goes to show how powerful communication is, and how gullible we are. The DHMO "debate" even nearly made it to the floor of the Aliso Viejo, California city council: the bill considered banning foam cups, because dihydrogen monoxide was used in the production. Someone put two and two together, and the bill never got a vote. Thank goodness.

This one is really worth reading the full article about. It's a hoot!


21 Feb 2017

When you're selecting a font, you usually don't think about its age. In fact, you probably assume, like I did until 10 minutes before writing this trivia entry, that they were all designed somewhere in the 1900s.

A couple of fonts, and ones that are living on your computer no less, are much older! No, not Times New Roman. That was designed in 1932.

Garamond was designed by a French bookmaker named Claude 1550! Garamond created quite a few fonts, including one for Greek, which was commissioned by King Francis I of France.

The Caslon font is a little newer, but although it recently became one of the defaults on Microsoft Word, it was widely used before that. Caslon was designed in 1722 by William Caslon, and it is considered to be the first English typeface. Some important documents you've read are printed in Caslon, including that one that starts with "When in the course of human events..." (Seriously, if you don't recognize the document now, you need to brush up on your history.)


15 Feb 2017

Tea has been around for thousands of years, so we modern humans generally assume that something as obvious as the tea bag is probably about as old. Surprisingly, that's not true! The history books generally point to tea merchant Thomas Sullivan as the inventor, around 1908. This is where it gets really weird, though. Despite being hailed as the inventor, much like Marconi being illegitimately credited for inventing the radio, Sullivan missed that boat (pun intended) by about seven years. In fact, his own design was considered inferior to the original.

The tea bag was first known as the "Tea-Leaf Holder", invented by Roberta C. Lawson and Mary Molaren of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. As far as they were concerned, brewing an entire pot of tea when you only wanted a cup was wasteful. They filed patent US723287.

As to Sullivan, his "invention" was accidental. According to legend, he would hand out little silk bags of "samples" to prospective buyers. Yet, instead of opening the bags, people began using them in the same manner as the "Tea-Leaf Holder". Customers demanded more, and Sullivan began selling these bags. However, the silk was an inferior material for the purpose, compared to the cotton used in Lawson and Molaren's version. Sullivan reportedly switched to gauze, but even then, the glue used to seal the bag interfered with the tea's flavor.

If Sullivan's story is indeed true, then chances are that it was his commercial success that led to tea manufacturers selling tea bags. Meanwhile, Lawson and Molaren became buried in the annals of history, right along with Tesla, the ACTUAL inventor of the radio.

History is weird that way.


7 Feb 2017

Ever wonder why the hard drive on many computers is called "C:"? If you're a complete tech nerd like me (and a few other people at the company), you probably already know some of this, but here goes anyway.

It all began when IBM started identifying storage devices by letters. Through a much debated series of weird business agreements and conflicts (I read the summary of these three times now, and it still doesn't make total sense to me), IBM's system was picked up by Microsoft, and thus it is firmly entrenched in Windows. Of course, UNIX has a completely different system - SDA being the name for the primary "storage disk" on the system, SDB being the secondary, and so on.

Early computers using the single letter system had two floppy drives: "A:" and "B:". If my memory serves me correctly, "A:" was commonly for data and program disks, while "B:" was typically for system disks, though that depended heavily on the machine. When the hard drive was first introduced, everyone was already so used to the first two letters being removable floppies that they designated the new device as "C:".

I've repaired a lot of computers now, and I've noticed that we actually have quite a few patterns with naming. Floppies are always "A:" and "B:" now, though most computers don't have any floppy drives, so we skip those - the ones that do usually only have "A:" and skip "B:".

The primary hard drive is almost always "C:", with a second usually being "D:". On laptops, "D:" usually goes to the optical drive, otherwise that jumps to "F:", and the second optical is at "G:". "E:" is almost always the memory card (SD-CARD) slot.

I guess people just like memorable patterns. Can you say "backward compatibility"? I'm a total nerd to have memorized that of course, but that shouldn't be any grand revelation to y'all.

31 Jan 2017

When it comes to wood, some "hardwoods" are softer than some "softwoods." That's because the two names have nothing to do with the hardness of the wood. (Wait, what?)

Like a tomato actually being considered a fruit, the way that plants are identified is often counter-intuitive to popular logic. Hardwoods produce seeds that have some sort of covering when they fall to the ground - a nut (walnut, chestnut, etc), an acorn (oak), a fruit (apple), a helicopter (maple), whatever. Softwoods just drop their seeds without an extra covering, such as the yew, fir, hemlock, and larch.

The real way to determine the density of wood is through the Janka Hardness Test, which measures the average amount of force necessary to "embed a .444 inch steel ball to half its diameter." When you test woods that way, some softwoods are harder than some hardwoods, and visa versa. Go figure.

24 Jan 2017

The first hamburger sandwich was served at Louis' Lunch in New Haven, Connecticut. In 1900, the restaurant says, a man runs in and told Louis Lassen, the owner, that he was in a tremendous hurry, and he needed something to eat on the run. Louis took some ground steak trimmings, put them between two slices of toast, and gave it to the gentleman. The hamburger was born.

Louis' Lunch also was an early example of diner speak. Regular patrons have been known to place cryptic orders, such as "two cheese works, a salad and a birch", as the website details. That means they want two cheeseburgers (with certain toppings), potato salad, and a birch beer. Most of the phrases are only known by regular patrons.

This place is also now on my list of restaurants I MUST eat at in my lifetime!

Meanwhile, if you're looking for an amazing hamburger closer to home, drop by Schmidty's Burgers on 4th Ave, downtown CDA. Annie and I once walked nearly two miles through the snow to get Schmidty's burgers. They're that good.


17 Jan 2017

They say that Roman Emperor Nero fiddled while Rome burned. There are a few problems with this legend, however, and perhaps the most significant is that the violin didn't exist in any form yet! Oops. (There are also no reports that he knew how to play the lyre.)

Some historians actually wonder whether Nero really sat back during the disaster. According to some reports at the time, Nero was 35 miles outside of Rome at the time, but immediately returned and opened his gardens for homeless survivors to stay in. He apparently implemented emergency procedures, including lowering the price of corn and giving food to people who couldn't afford any.

Nero had a lot of political opponents, and no wonder given his history of torturing people. (Rome wasn't a good place for a person to be accused of a crime, just sayin'.) He also was rumored to have offed political opponents and family members. With history this far removed, and the standard of Rome's tumultuous politics, who can say any more whether he took out people he didn't like or not. The point is, a lot of people hated him, whether justly or otherwise.

When a rumor started that Nero was singing on his private stage about the burning of Troy while the city burned, that story spread like...well, nevermind the badly timed analogy. Nero was blamed for the whole fire. History books still claim he started it so that Rome could be rebuilt the way HE wanted.

Nero, meanwhile, decided to scapegoat the whole thing on the Christians of Rome, a small population whose new religion at the time certainly seemed bizarre to the Romans. Yet, even after pinning the disaster on this group and executing many of them, the claims that Nero started the fire and sang while it spread remained strong.

Given what we know about urban fires now, who knows how the Great Fire of Rome started? Wildly conflicting reports of the time don't help solve this mystery, as they either came from people who loved Nero, or who hated him. However it went down, we know one thing...Nero didn't have a fiddle.


10 Jan 2017

In 1837, Friedrich Fröbel founded the world's first kindergarten in Germany. The name literally is German for "children's garden", for the analogy he used that children were like "plants", being tended by female volunteers. Fröbel asserted that young children learned through play and exploration, not by forcing them to fit a mold. The concept was literally controversial - kindergartens were officially made illegal, for reasons that remain unclear. Some believe it was based on opposition to the assertion that children learned through play, contrary to popular scientific ideas of the time. Others say there was confusion between Friedrich Fröbel and his nephew, Karl, who had also authored a book on the subject of education that was considered to be socialist and feminist. The ban on kindergarten was not lifted until 1860.

In 1856, one of Fröbel's students, Margarethe Shurz, founded the first kindergarten in America, in Watertown, Wisconsin. That school only spoke German, but Elizabeth Peabody took the concept and opened the first English-speaking kindergarten in Boston four years later.

3 Jan 2017

We've had our share of do-overs at MousePaw Games, and that doesn't reflect badly on us at all - even the great painting masters had a few do-overs. Modern technology is now able to uncover the paintings that the masters painted over.

For example, the iconic "Lady with an Ermine" by Leonardo da Vinci didn't originally have an ermine at all. Using something called the Layer Amplification Method (LAM), French engineer Pascal Cotte found that the lady started out not holding anything. Then, da Vinci painted her with a weasel. Finally, he settled on the white ermine...which to me looks suspiciously like Operation SpyRat operative "Lady" Lucrecia Winter (see the Operation SpyRat Characters wiki on Phabricator.)

Rembrandt's "Old Man in Military Costume" had a surprise under it as well. Rembrandt had painted over a portrait of a woman that, I presume, he wasn't happy with (the painting, not the woman). For years, this "do-over" had gone undetected, because Rembrandt had used the exact same pigments for the second portrait as for the first, but modern technology finally uncovered it.

I guess it is the artistic equivalent of commenting out code.

13 Dec 2016

Here's a breed of dog one you may not have heard of: the Komondor. Considered a national treasure of Hungary, the Komondor looks like a giant attack mop. They are fiercely loyal in protecting their families and herds. They have even been known to attack bears. It is said by the official breeders that, sure, you can enter a property guarded by a Komondor. You just won't be able to leave it. In fact, legend has it that during World War II, German and Russian troops could not even take a farm without first taking out the dog.

Their famous corded fur is actually very fluffy when they're puppies, and they require a lot of maintenance so their cords come in properly. Meanwhile, they have to be trained young, as they are very independent and stubborn.

If you want puppy pictures, check the first link. :)


6 Dec 2016

In the Victorian Era, groomed moustaches were incredibly important to people. It was the mark of a distinguished gentleman (or at least, one of the marks). Even British soldiers were strictly required to have one during this era. To keep that moustache looking manly, they used wax and dye - both of which could get washed off while drinking their tea. Gasp, how unsightly! (Not to mention, it would make the tea disgusting.)

So, one brilliant and presumably moustached gentleman, the potter Harvey Adams, introduced the moustache cup somewhere during the 1850s. It had a specially designed lip designed to ensure your drink never touched your 'stache. It made its debut in Staffordshire, England, and was a major success. It was a must-have for distinguished gentleman.

So, why have we never heard of these things? Probably because they were never popular here in America, and because the item became nearly obsolete as moustaches fell out of fashion when the safety razor was invented in 1901.

As for me, my moustache is quite happy the way it is, and it isn't afraid of a little coffee and a napkin.


30 Nov 2016

It's the time of year for watching "A Charlie Brown Christmas." You may think you know it inside and out, but there's something you probably didn't know! At the beginning of the show, when Snoopy and the kids play crack the whip, Charlie Brown gets flung into a tree, at which point, we see the opening credits. You know that much. But where did Linus end up?

The original sponsor of A Charlie Brown Christmas was the Coca-Cola Company, and as such, they did get a placement ad in the program, in the form of a billboard by the skating pond. Can you guess what Linus gets flung into yet?

14 Nov 2016

Noah Webster wanted to revolutionize American education (wait, this already sounds familiar). His first book was the now-famous "A Grammatical Institute of the English Language", better known as the "Blue-Backed Speller". Then, he undertook "A Compendious Dictionary of the English Language," which took him five years to compile. That first dictionary, released in 1806, contained only about 37,000 words. Then, he updated it, bringing the total number of words to a whopping 65,000. The update took him 22 years, and he finally released the two-volume "American Dictionary of the English Language" in 1828, when he was 70 years old.

That first edition sold for $20 initially, which would be roughly equivalent to $424 today. He later reduced the price to $15 (modern $318), which improved sales. This edition can still be bought used (no surprise there) for a mere $22,500. I'd better start counting pennies.


8 Nov 2016

The famous "Green Eggs and Ham" was written on a bet between Theodore Geisel (Dr. Seuss) and Random House co-founder Bennett Cerf, that Geisel couldn't write a book with less than 50 unique words. The bet was for $50, which would be worth a little under $400 today. Geisel won the bet, but Cerf never paid up.

"The Cat in the Hat" came into being under similar circumstances. Houghton Mifflin's educational division direction, William Spaulding, challenged Geisel to write a book containing no more than 225 first-grade vocabulary words, and to make it such that "first-graders can't put it down." Thankfully, this wasn't a bet, as Geisel wrote the book with 236 words - thus he didn't QUITE meet the challenge. We really can't fault him for that: "The Cat in the Hat" took nine months to write, due to the challenges of a limited vocabulary, but it ultimately paid off. It sold over a million copies in the first three years, and Geisel was finally able to quit his job in advertising and become a full time children's author.


By the way, Dr. Seuss also gave us the word "nerd", which first appeared in his 1950 book, "If I Ran the Zoo". Hmm, it figures, as some of our best words come from literature. (See also, "snark", coined by Lewis Carroll).

2 Nov 2016

We tend to take our keyboard for granted, even those of us who are familiar with the particular joys (or drudgeries, if you prefer) of a manual typewriter. That said, the first commercial typewriter was...odd. The Hansen Writing Ball, which did not use our familiar QWERTY layout, was invented in 1865 by one Rasmus Malling-Hansen, who was the principal at the Royal Institute for the deaf-mutes in Copenhagen, Denmark. ( That said, it wasn't terribly successful.

The more familiar looking typewriter was invented in Milwaukee, Wisconsin in 1868 by Christopher Sholes, Carlos Glidden, and Samuel Soule. It introduced a QWERTY layout. The purpose of QWERTY is rather unclear actually, but it is believed that the layout commonly-used-together letters on opposite sides to prevent jams. However, it apparently also increased efficiency, by balancing use between hands. (

Whether QWERTY was invented to speed up typing or slow it down, it remains the standard today. Simply put, very few people familiar with QWERTY wanted to learn something brand new (i.e. DVORAK), and thus why your pinky has formal "Q" duty to this day.

25 Oct 2016

Les Paul did NOT invent the electric guitar. Okay, rock fans, I'll give you a second to pick your brains back up off the floor after that revelation.

In fact, it was invented in 1931 (surprise, surprise) by musician George Beauchamp and electrical engineer Adolph Rickenbacker. Theirs wasn't strictly "the first", but it was the first decent-sounding version. This invention was necessitated by the fact that, in concert halls, no one (including most people on stage) could hear the guitar over the other instruments on stage. Beauchamp and Rickenbacker invented the electromagnetic pickup, which they first used on a steel "lap" guitar. In 1932, they founded Ro-Pat-In, later renamed to the "Rickenbacker Electro Stringed Instrument Company", and they released their first model commercially (which they dubbed the "frying pan", which it apparently resembled.) That October, Musician Gage Brewer demonstrated two Rickenbacker instruments for the local newspaper in Wichita, Kansas.

To help you get over that shock from earlier, Les Paul DID invent the hard-body electric guitar (Rickenbacker's were hollow-body), but that's another story. In other news, Leo Fender, the inventor of the Fender guitar, never learned how to play guitar. (Oops, there goes your brain again.)


18 Oct 2016

Marshmallow is actually a plant grown in salt marshes. It has been used for medicinal (and candy) purposes since the Ancient Egyptians - they would whip the sap with egg whites and sugar, along with honey and nuts sometimes, to make a hard meringue candy to soothe sore throats. The candy's popularity really took off in the 1800s, however, and mass production led to them dropping the namesake ingredient, marshmallow sap, in favor of gelatin. Soon, they sped up the process further by making the marshmallows with the "starch mogul", the same process used to create gummy candies today. It wasn't until 1948 that a French candymaker, Alex Dourmak, perfected the extrusion process that creates the pillow-like treats we're familiar with today.

By the way, some people actually have a documented fear of marshmallows, known as althaiophobia (seriously, where do they get these names?), in which they're terrified they'll choke on the confections. Generally, these individuals are okay with mini-marshmallows, however. Who knew?

One last weird fact about marshmallow - don't confuse it with the poisonous mallow plant!

10 Oct 2016

Some have wondered why New York City, being one of our oldest and largest major cities, is not the capitol of the United States. Actually, it was once! Well, sort of. The Continental Congress met in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, but George Washington took office in New York City. However, by time 1792 rolled around, the capitol had moved...back to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Washington's second term, as well as part of Adam's presidency, were both served there. By that time, things were already changing again, however.

The exact details are murky at times, but one of the main reasons the District of Columbia was created was because it was between the North and South, which were often embroiled in political disputes even back then. It would be a place not belonging to any one state, so it would be a bit more fair. Besides that, George Washington had a hand in selecting the location, which was quite close to his own Mount Vernon.

Those explanations, however, are really oversimplifying matters, though. It's a fascinating little piece of American history, and worth reading up on!

3 Oct 2016

We take our modern email for granted sometimes. Whether the recipient is on a Windows, Mac, Linux, iPhone, iPad, Android, or even a Smart TV, we know they'll get the email we sent them. All they have to do is sign in on their device's handy little email application. It is easy to forget that this has not always been the case for computers.

In the 60s and 70s, electronic mail existed, but it generally only worked on the same terminal. You could send an electronic memo to another computer user on your machine. Finally, in the 80s, you could start sending messages to other people on the local area network. WordPerfect Office and Microsoft Mail had their heyday during this time. Soon, you could send between networks, too - but only if the other network used the same email system and protocols.

In the 90s, things started to change, slowly. (Check out this interoffice memo at NPR from 1994 about email and the internet). There were still many email protocols to choose from, but things began narrowing down before long. Now, everything plays well together...mostly.

Cue neon sign..

Macro _should_:

19 Sep 2016

There is a really cool way to multiply literally ANY number by 11 without a calculator, and I think it'd be fun to include that here this week.

For example, 76 x 11 is 836.

Step 1: Write the first and last digits of the number you're multiplying, with a blank in the middle. 7_6

Step 2: Add the digits together and put that number in the middle. Carry the ten's place. 7+6=13, so (7+1)36, or 836.

For three-digit numbers, like 186, just write the first two digits, a blank, and the third digit. It works the same way.

You can actually multiply any number by 11 this way. Take 24719 x 11, for example. Write all but the last digit, a blank, and then the last digit. Add the numbers on either side of the blank, like before, carry as needed, and voilá.
2471+9 = 2480


Kinda fun, in my opinion, but then I AM a math nerd.

12 Sep 2016

The last time you pressed your car horn to remind the person in front of you that green meant "go" on a traffic light, you probably didn't think about (or care) what note you just played, or how convenient it is to have a horn in your car at all.

Back in 1800s Britain, self-propelled vehicles (steam carriages, for example) had to be "preceded by a man on foot waving a red flag and blowing a horn." Arguably, doesn't that defeat the purpose of a car? Before long, people figured out that a horn in the car was a whole lot more efficient - and it didn't come included. Go figure.

Apparently, most car horns prior to 1960 were tuned to E flat or C. Two of the most popular brands were the "Gabriel" and the "Klaxon," while the classic "Awooga" came from the horns of the model-T and model-A Fords. After 1960, and a whole lot of research on how to make horns sound more pleasant (yes, really), they changed the note of car horns to F sharp and A sharp. Eh, I preferred the "awooga."

5 Sep 2016

I was playing Carmen Sandiego: Treasures of Knowledge a while back, and one case involved unlocking a secret passage in Warwick Castle that led from the fireplace at an inn to a secret room in one of the towers. Whether such a passage exists remains to be seen - I can't find anything about it in my research. However, there are many secret passages and hidden rooms in castles and old buildings around Europe.

Actually, the game may have taken a cue from a hidden room in St. John's Hospital, which really is in Warwick. There's a hiding place that once could only be reached through a sliding panel over the fireplace in a room called "the hall." The hiding place was later converted into a dressing room and given a less clandestine entrance.

There are actually quite a few hiding places around Warwickshire, and Europe overall, many of which are detailed in "Secret Chambers and Hiding-Places" by Allan Fea. ( Quite an interesting read, really, especially since it details the escapes of some of my nuttier ancestors.

29 Aug 2016

If you're looking to build up your herb and spice collection, here are my lists. If you have all of these on hand, you can usually cook by scent and taste, pulling from the list. Get the combination right, and then when it tastes "right, but a little flat," add just a pinch of salt to finish it off.

Italian: Italian Oregano, Basil, Marjoram, Sage, Parsley, Thyme, Fennel (seeds), Garlic, Pepper, Balsamic Vinegar, Olive Oil
French: Oregano, Basil, Rosemary, Lavender, Savory, Sage, Tarragon, Thyme, Pepper, Wine Vinegar, Olive Oil
Greek: Greek Oregano, Basil, Mint, Dill, Garlic, Sage, Tarragon, Sesame (Tahini), Citrus (i.e. Lemon Juice)
Chinese: Oregano, Basil, Cinnamon, Anise, Sesame (Oil), Garlic, Clove, Chili Powder, Pepper, Rice Wine Vinegar
Mexican: Oregano, Basil, Chili Powder, Paprika, Cumin, Garlic, Pepper, Red Pepper

You'll notice that oregano, basil, and garlic are pretty universal. That said, oregano and basil (as well as sage!) come in many varieties, so while you can get away with using the store-bought dried variety, growing various types of these herbs (and the others) gives you a much larger palette to work with!

22 Aug 2016

Most of us "know" that fortune cookies were not a Chinese invention. Problem is, no one seems to know who DID invent them. Immigrants from both China and Japan have made a claim to the invention, as have American chefs. The pseudo-legal San Fransisco Court of Historical Review, over which a real Federal judge presided, attempted to answer the question in 1983, by claiming that it was a San Franciscan invention, though the decision was contested by the fact that the "court" has a bias towards San Fransisco. That version of the story holds that the cookies were invented in California somewhere around World War I.

However, other investigation has yielded a different theory - that the cookie is a descendant of the Japanese "fortune cracker". This version is larger, flavored with sesame and miso, and holds the fortune on the outside of the cookie. There's an 1878 block print to prove that Japan was making these long before the fortune cookie appeared in the United States.

That version of the story holds that fortune cookies became a part of American "Chinese" cuisine when Chinese restaurant owners stepped up to fill in for the market gap left by the interned Japanese in the Asian cuisine market during World War II. Because the Japenese fortune crackers were already rather popular, they were adapted and adopted.

So, we may never know where the fortune cookie really came from. Perhaps we should start cracking cookies until one yields the answer on its customary slip of paper.

15 Aug 2016

There is no shortage of Tolkien fans. J.R.R. Tolkien himself would be...disgusted. Seriously. For some unknown reason, Tolkien regarded many fans of his works as "lunatics" who couldn't fully appreciate the sheer scope of his work. Besides that point, Tolkien didn't really consider his writings of Middle Earth to be his best work. He was, in his mind, first and foremost a scholar, and his writing was just a hobby. He'd have a field day with Mr. Jackson.

Tolkien was a very gutsy guy. When a German publisher during Nazi rule wrote Tolkien, confirming his "Aryan" identity in accordance with Hitler's twisted laws regarding book publication, Tolkien bemoaned in writing that he had no Jewish relatives. Apparently he said a few more things considerably more scathing than that. He even considered banning the translation of The Hobbit into German.


8 Aug 2016

Pizza used to be the food of the poor working class (lazzaroni) in Naples, Italy - simply flatbread with common toppings, like cheese, tomatoes, and (gasp) anchovies. (No, PIzza Hut did NOT invent the Flatbread Pizza.) The upper crust of society (pun intended) viewed pizzas distastefully, and regarded the lazzaroni's eating habits as disgusting.

In 1861 King Umbarto I and Queen Margherita grew bored of the fancy French cuisine they were used to (yes, French), and they ordered a whole mess of pizzas from Pizzeria Brandi, just for the variety. A pizza with mozzarella, basil, and red tomatoes became the queen's favorite, thus why it is still called the Pizza Margherita today! Yet, pizza remained obscure in Italy for quite some time.

In fact, pizza became popular in America before it did in Italy, when immigrants from Naples brought their favorite food to the new world. The Neapolitan favorite soon grabbed the attention of Americans, and the first (licensed) U.S. pizzeria, G. Lombardi, opened in Manhattan in 1905. G. Lombardi is still in operation today - along with its original oven!

Finally, the pizza craze reached Italy after World War I, and only because it was "American", at that. Who would have guessed?


1 Aug 2016

Ever wonder where the phrase "break a leg" came from? While it stems from the belief that wishing "good luck" was bad luck, the actual origin is unknown. There are many theories (my own being that, since actors make the imaginary real, and the real imaginary, that luck would invert for them...but that's just supposition), but no one really knows for sure.

Another theory states that "break a leg" means to make a strenuous effort, and yet another believes that is is a mistranslation from a Yiddish blessing to the German phrase "neck and leg fracture". And YET ANOTHER idea is that, because in Greece, people stomped to show their approval, if they stomped too hard, they'd (theoretically?) break a leg. I think that last one is the most absurd, but hey.

Either way, don't tell a dancer to break a leg.

25 July 2016

The iconic theme song for Looney Tunes actually comes from a silly song dating back to 1937, called "The Merry Go Round Broke Down." It was written by Cliff Friend and Dave Franklin, and was picked up by Warner Brothers as the theme for Looney Tunes that same year, though apparently it was not originally written for that purpose. It actually does have lyrics, but I'll leave you to look those up. (And yes, Daffy Duck did sing them at one point.)

All that said, the melody does borrow from an older fiddle song called "Chinese Breakdown." I'll leave you to look that one up as well.

Th-th-th-th-that's all, folks!

18 July 2016

1916 saw the first "self-service" grocery store, Piggly Wiggly, open in Memphis, Tennessee. At least, this is CREDITED as the first. Several stores, including Alpha Beta in California, were experimenting with the concept back in 1914. The name Alpha Beta came from the fact that they were among the first to arrange groceries alphabetically, back in 1915. (Side note: Alpha Beta later merged with American Stores, and then again with Lucky Stores. The surviving Alpha Beta stores became Lucky stores.)

Years later, in 1937, Sylvan N. Goldman introduced the idea of the shopping cart to his Humpty Dumpty stores in Oklahoma City. The invention was hailed with a newspaper advertisement saying "It's new - It's sensational. No more baskets to carry," and showing a woman struggling with her grocery basket. The innovation was met with...nothing. Customers weren't interested. Men thought it made them look weak. The carts reminded women of baby carriages. So Goldman hired male and female models to push the carts around the store, pretending to shop. The tactic to normalize the new invention worked. Before long, everyone was using the carts, and by 1940, shopping carts were in high demand - so much so that there was a seven-year waiting list to buy one!

But, as with the idea of the grocery store, Goldman wasn't the only one with the idea. Several people had been experimenting with the concept.

In 1946, Orla E. Watson in Kansas City created the horizontally nesting shopping carts we're familiar with today. Goldman fought back, trying to patent the same idea. Finally, the two came to an agreement, and Goldman released his patent rights.

11 July 2016

I dearly love coffee, as you probably know. What you probably didn't know is that coffee is a fruit! The raw coffee cherry is reported to taste like rosewater, hibiscus, and watermelon all rolled into one. Unfortunately, there isn't a lot of meat to them, so it is rather tough to enjoy these.

Meanwhile, cocoa comes the cacao plant, with huge fruits about the size of a coconut. Unfortunately, the raw fruit is not nearly as tasty as coffee person says it tastes like chewing on an extraordinarily bitter Pink Pearl eraser. You really have to roast the stuff to enjoy it. Go figure.

Just don't get me started on the durian fruit.

27 June 2016

One 23-year-old Scottish officer gained himself infamy among the Nazis during World War II, along with a hefty bounty on his head. Dressed in his Scottish war attire, complete with kilt, Tommy Macpherson and a few under-trained French Resistance footsoldiers singlehandedly took out Nazi Panzer units. In all, he and his men personally accepted the surrender of 23,000 German soldiers through the war.

The Germans never did have to cough up the bounty on Macphearson; as of 2010, Macpherson was still the director of the athletic program at Oxford University.

You can read the whole incredible story at:

20 June 2016

The blue whale has a tongue that weighs 3 tons, which isn't totally surprising given its size. Perhaps more impressive is the tongue of the tube-lipped nectar bat - it's tongue is one and a half times longer than it's body, and is actually stored inside its rib cage. The Morgan's Sphinx hawk moth has the longest proboscis relative to its body size - 3 times longer. So if you count a proboscis as a kind of tongue, the moth for the win.

This time, I think the trivia lived up to its name, but hey...if you ever are asked by a creepy guy at a bridge what the longest tongue in the animal kingdom is, you have a shot at answering him. I can't help you if he asks for your favorite color.

As to the average airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow, someone figured that out too:

13 June 2016

The mantis shrimp is actually quite remarkable. For one, they have some of the most amazing eyes in the animal kingdom. National geographic reports that their eyes are similar to, yet more effective than, the technology found in DVD players. They are able to see types of light we cannot, and can perceive depth and distance by looking at objects. In scientific terms, they have "trinocular" vision, which I'd guess that means they have true 3D vision. Beyond that, they can see TWELVE PRIMARY COLORS (we see three). Yet...they have worse color vision than humans. Go figure.

Oh, by the way, their punches have the same speed as a .22-caliber gun, and can break quarter-inch glass - or the shell of the crab, which it eats.

6 June 2016

However much you hate dubstep, it's nothing compared to the first audience. Luigi Russolo is credited with inventing "noise music" in his 1913 work, "The Art of Noises." His 1917 concert, "Gran Concerto Futuristico", was not met with rave reviews. Actually, it was met with violence from the crowd.

Many styles of music have stemmed from this idea of using elements of noise, and I'm sure Russolo would have been pleased, especially considering that the only heavy metal he encountered was probably what was being pitched at his head.

30 May 2016

There is some debate about who invented the game of "Battleship". Some say it was invented around World War I, inspired by the French game "L'Attaque". Others claim it was based on the 1890 game of "Baslinda". Still others say it was being played by Russian soldiers long before that.

In the 1900s, "Battleship" actually had many variations by many different game publishers. One thing was common: they were all pencil-and-paper games. The Milton Bradley plastic game of "Battleship" we're familiar with wasn't invented until 1967.

While we're on the subject of war games, Monopoly games were actually used during World War II to help POWs escape Germany! Silk maps were hidden under the Free Parking space, real money mixed in with the game currency, and small tools tucked in here and there. These games were sent in under the guise of fake relief organizations, and it is unknown how many POWs were aided in their escape. Talk about your "get out of jail free" cards!

23 May 2016

If you think YOU have a problem returning books to the library, that's nothing compared to President George Washington. He checked out "The Law of Nations" from the New York Society Library, NYC back in September 1789. He forgot to return it, and it wound up in his personal library at Mount Vernon. 221 years later, in 2010 the Mount Vernon society sent it back. The library, being glad to have their book back, didn't charge them the late fee: $300,000.

Maybe George should have read a book on libraries while he was at it. For more incredibly overdue books, read And please, remember to return library books on time. :)

16 May 2016

Businessman Gary Dahl became a millionaire selling rocks. Not gravel, individual hand-sized rocks. Yup, Gary Dahl is the founder of "Rock Bottom Productions" and the creator of the Pet Rock. These were originally sold for $3.95 a piece in 1975 (worth $17.47 by today's standards). Vintage pet rocks are still sold around that price. Truth be told, I think Americans knew they were being duped, and really didn't care. Heck, there's a lot to be said for imagination, even at that price tag!

9 May 2016

The durian fruit is, by a handful of accounts, delicious. Anthony Bourdain, for example, loves it. It is also, by countless accounts, disgustingly stinky, so much so that it is illegal in Singapore, simply because of its scent. Some say it has a flavor reminiscent of rotting onions and gym socks...the same scent your breath will have afterwards. The fans will even admit to that. Needless to say, if you bring any to a company supper, we will lock you in your car with it. :)

2 May 2016

If you're allergic to wasp stings, you might want to avoid figs.

The fig plant has a symbiotic relationship with the fig wasp. The wasp is the plant's only pollinator, and also a tenant. The fig plant has two types of fig: the caprifig and the edible fig. Wasps live in the pollen-filled caprifig, with the males digging escape tunnels for the females. When the female leaves to lay her eggs elsewhere, she has to look for a new caprifig, but it is impossible to tell early on which is which. To enter, the wasp must crawl through a narrow passage called ostiole, losing her wings and antennae in the process. If she enters another caprifig, she finds places to lay her eggs. But, if she accidentally enters an edible fig, she delivers the pollen, but is unable to find a place to lay her eggs. The wasp is actually digested by the fruit.

Interesting, yes, and also useful. We learned last week the hard way that, for those of us who have an allergy to wasps, figs are not a good snack.


25 April 2016

Chameleons, such as Cammie and Leon in Operation SpyRat: Word4Word, can change colors. Yeah, nearly everyone knows that. It has long been thought that chameleons can change the pigment in their skin.

Turns out, that's not how it works at all! A new study published in 2015 in Nature Communications studied how panther chameleons from Madagascar changed colors. They found, not switching of pigments, but a latticework of crystals. When the chameleon is excited, the latticework stretches, changing the position of the crystals to reflect different light. Thus, a relaxed chameleon reflects green and blue light, while an excited or stressed chameleon reflects red and yellow.

They also discovered that chameleons have a second layer of skin which reflects varying amounts of near-infrared light, thereby allowing them to control their temperature by moderating how much infrared light they absorb.

While we're on the subject, that viral video of a chameleon changing colors to reflect the pair of sunglasses he was standing on? Not real - it takes minutes, not seconds, for a chameleon to change color, and their color shifts have more to do with mood than surroundings. That video, it turns out, was a Ray-Ban commercial.


18 April 2016

Once upon a time, pencils contained lead, right? Actually, no! The name was a complete misunderstanding. In the 1500s, a massive storm near Seathwaite, Cumbria, England toppled a number of trees. A passerby traveling the approach to Grey Knotts noticed what he thought was lead clinging to some exposed tree roots. It turned out that it was instead from what remains to be the only large-scale deposit of solid, pure graphite. Not knowing this, early chemists called it "plumbago" (literally "lead ore"), cementing the misunderstanding in history.

Soon, it was discovered that graphite was very useful in producing smoother cannonballs, which could fly further. Subsequently, Queen Elizabeth I took over the mines, having them flooded in when not being mined to prevent theft. Yet, another use was being made of the graphite - writing. Graphite would be smuggled out of the mines, and then cut into sticks and wrapped in string or sheepskin. Around 1560, Italians Simonio and Lyndiana Bernacotti invented hollowed wooden cases to hold the graphite sticks, and the pencil was born.

Because England had the only source of solid graphite on the planet, they were the sole producer of the pencils for quite some time. Artists all over the world would purchase them, and England enjoyed the benefits of the natural monopoly. Eventually, a method of creating graphite sticks from the powder form of the mineral was invented in 1662 Nuremberg, Germany. This version mixed the graphite with sulfur and antimony, and was considered far inferior to the English pencil.

During the Napoleonic Wars, France was unable to get their mitts on any pencils, English or German, because of the blockades. One of Napoleon's officers, Nicolas-Jacques Conté, discovered that if he mixed graphite powder and clay, and then kiln-fired the rods. This new method also allowed Conté to control the hardness. Interestingly, Austrian Joseph Hardtmuth had already discovered this same method in 1790, and founded the Koh-I-Noor company in Vienna. Hardtmuth patented the process in 1802.

In England, they continued to use the solid graphite from Grey Knotts mines for making pencils up until 1891. After that point, Hardtmuth's method made the use of pure graphite impractical, and the mine was closed.


11 April 2016

Two teenagers - Claude Ryan (18) and Jim Casey (19) - borrowed $100 from a friend and, using a shared bike, decided to make some money transporting telegrams around 1907 Seattle, Washington. They called their little business the "American Messenger Company." Over time, their enterprise expanded to include several teenaged couriers, delivering anything that could be carried on a bicycle. Meanwhile, Claude and Jim answered phones at their "office" in the basement of a hotel.

After a few years, they were able to merge with a rival company. Now known as the Merchant's Parcel Delivery, they gained the other company's vehicles, including a Ford Model T. Ryan and Casey's company shifted focus to making deliveries for retailers, as more and more people had taken to ordering goods over the phone.

The business started by these two entrepreneurial teenagers is still going strong today, with over half a million people delivering over 3.8 billion packages across 200 countries. You know the Merchant's Parcel Delivery by their current name: UPS.

Not bad for a couple of teens, eh?

4 April 2016

MousePaw Games has formally been around since 2010, but our history goes all the way back to a practical joke war five years earlier! In early 2005, my mother's IRC channel was frequently occupied by a group of college students who had come for a live author chat and never went home. I logged into under the false name of "Blueboy," pretending to be a kid who wasn't supposed to be online. After a couple hours of this, I revealed my identity, and announced that the college students were my "lab rats" in a social experiment.

The "lab rats" promised revenge, and the First Great Lab Rat Prank War began. To add fuel to the fire, I created an e-card taunting my opponents. While Remmie, the de-facto leader of the group, announced that 'revenge is best served hot,' I quietly began work on a web game called "Remmie and the Lab Rats." In the game, the lab rats and Remmie the guinea pig are kidnapped by the evil Blueboy the cat, and the player must rescue them.

Does any of this sound familiar?

Three games later, the lab rats conceded the war on April 7th, 2005, and I won with a final score of 4-0. A few years later, Remmie and her friends enlisted the help of an author and a missionary in pranking me back. I won the Second Great Lab Rat Prank War with a score of 5-2, but the lab rats certainly fought back in style! One of the pranks involved the author sending me a book with a hand-written dedication "To the rat who thinks he's a cat, but is really only a dragon snack."

For April Fools this year, I posted playthroughs of the original taunt and games on the company YouTube, complete with behind-the-scenes annotations. Check them out, and enjoy!

21 March 2016

Henry Robert Pearce showed exactly that to a family of ducks in 1905, when he stopped rowing his boat to let them swim by. The odd part - he was pulling first place in an Olympic elimination race in Amsterdam at the time!

As Pearce sat, waiting for the little duck family to swim out of his path, his opponent didn't show quite so much regard. Frenchman Vincent Saurin blazed past Pearce to take the lead. Saurin's lead didn't last - as soon as the ducks cleared out, Pearce finished the last 1,000 meters of the race and WON by nearly 30 seconds. He went on to win gold.


14 March 2016

The Central Asian country of Turkmenistan is well-known for its natural gas reserves, being the world's 11th largest exporter. It also is known for one of the weirdest sinkholes on the planet.

In 1971, Soviet Union engineers decided to start drilling for natural gas in a desert site near the village of Derweze. The initial drilling operating was going well when the ground gave way, taking one of the drilling rigs with it. The crater, measuring almost 200 feet across and over 65 feet deep, was an immediate danger - the rich reserves of poisonous natural gas were leaking into the air.

Thinking they could just burn off the natural gas, thereby averting disaster, they set the sinkhole on fire. It worked, insomuch as to avert the danger of poisonous gases escaping into the surrounding area. That said, they planned on it burning for a few days. That part of the plan didn't quite work out, as it is still burning today, 46 years later.

Recent attempts to seal the sinkhole and find another way to harvest the natural gas failed, and now the country of Turkmenistan is considering making their so-called "gateway to hell" a tourist attraction. The idea might be worth pursuing, as the sinkhole is quite an impressive sight.


29 Feb 2016

We've heard it said many times - "that's the best thing since sliced bread!" So, who even invented sliced bread? That honor goes to Otto Frederick Rohwedder, a jeweler from Davenport, Iowa. He created a bread slicing machine in 1912, and it was immediately met with a resouding...nothing. No one wanted pre-sliced bread, primarily because the bread went stale faster that way. Rohwedder subsequently lost his prototype and blueprints in a fire in 1917.

Undeterred, he continued to try and obtain funding to rebuild the machine, though the lack of interest made it an uphill battle. At last, he rebuilt the machine in 1927, and his friend Frank Bench decided to start using it in his bakery, the Chillicothe Baking Company (which is still in business, by the way: By wrapping each slice in wax paper, the problem of the bread going stale too quickly was solved, although it subsequently became a moot point. The convenience of sliced bread caused a significant upswing in its consumption. Interestingly, many bakeries initially regarded sliced bread as a mere fad. Boy, were they ever wrong!

On a slightly related topic, while bread, peanut butter, and jelly have all existed for centuries, the humble PB&J sandwich wasn't documented until a 1901 cookbook by Julia Davis Chandler, and even then, it was considered a "high-end" food. The Great Depression made peanut butter sandwiches more common, especially for their high protein value, but jelly wasn't invited to the party yet. Then, in World War II, Welch's new Grapelade grape jelly was sent, along with peanut butter and sliced bread, as a regular part of soldier rations. Sandwiches were a logical next step. It must have caught on, because following the war, PB&J sandwiches were introduced to American families (probably by returning soldiers), and sales of the ingredients skyrocketed.


22 Feb 2016

In Operation SpyRat, field agents Salim Thalab (red fox) and Rozan Momani (stone marten) are the team's "antiquities experts," specializing in recovering stolen artifacts and valuable antiques. While Rozan is primarily interested in capturing her criminal mastermind father, Artemis Momani, Salim's ambitions are a little more...literary. The fox is obsessed with finding the original collection of Aesop's Fables, compiled in 300BC by Demetrius of Phalerum, the head of acquisitions at the Library of Alexandria.

While Salim may be fictional (I assume...?), the history behind the fables isn't. No one is really sure which fables, if any, Aesop actually wrote. There's a gap of over 600 years between Aesop's life and the first known written copy of his fables, thereby making it almost impossible to prove their authenticity. Chances are, the original collection was lost to the world when the Library of Alexandria was destroyed. Once again, history gets murky here - we can't exactly determine WHEN or WHY the library was destroyed. Theories vary. Some believe it was destroyed for religious reasons. Others think it was collateral damage during Julias Caesar's war with Alexandria.

A new library, the Bibliotecha Alexandria, was built on the site in 2002, and that library carries on the legacy of its ancestor. The goal of the library is to preserve copies of the world's knowledge, both physical and digital. The building is also, apparently, fireproof. Given the legendary fate of the previous library, that's probably a good idea.


15 Feb 2016

Today is Hippo Day, so I tracked down a few facts about them. The hippopotamus is the third largest mammal on earth, but despite their hulking 1.5 to 3 ton size, hippos can actually run at speeds up to 14 miles per hour. They also can't actually swim, but propel themselves forward by pushing off the river bottom with one foot. While they spend most of the day in the water, they forage on land during the night. Apparently, they also secrete their own antibiotic sunscreen.

I doubt we'll have a hippopotamus in Operation SpyRat, however. They aren't exactly stealthy.


8 Feb 2016

The entire concept of throwing rotten tomatoes at disliked actors or plays seems rather infantile. Actually, it's extremely infantile, but perhaps this is one of the few areas where modern society has gained some maturity. For centuries, audiences had the habit of chucking objects at performances they didn't like, a tradition dating back to the Roman Colosseum. (Seriously, though, Rome didn't exactly have much on the rest of world history in the way of rational behavior.)

We often think of Shakespeare's plays as being high class affairs, but the original performances at the Globe Theatre were often scene to egg throwing, particularly rotten eggs; tomatoes were not well known at the time, being a New World fruit. Shakespeare's actors had to withstand the pelting of eggs anytime the audience, especially those in the cheap seats, felt like expressing themselves.

Things were worse in 19th century America, where the egg-throwing originated. Rowdy audience members considered their interaction with the play, however inappropriate, to be half the fun. Actors had to withstand eggs, fruit, rocks, and just about anything else the audience had handy, being thrown at them. On some occasions, patrons would even break apart the theater chairs and begin throwing those onto the stage. Audience members might even run onto the stage. The entire practice was built around mob mentality, wherein people will do stupid things in a group. Actors sometimes had to flee for their well-being.

The gracious demise of this sort of behavior was in part due to a change in theater design. More comfortable seating allowed the front row to be considered the "best seats in the house", instead of the historic boxes up and to the back. The cheap seats were then moved towards the back, thereby putting those more likely to engage in egg-throwing well out of range of the stage and the actors. Theaters were changed from the horseshoe pattern to the all-seats-face-forward design we know now. This effectively made the stage the focal point, and made it difficult to observe fellow audience members, thereby removing troublemakers as a possible source of entertainment. Set and lighting design changes also helped by establishing the "fourth wall" that makes the audience feel like they're only observing, and not actually participating.

Now we just reserve the rotten tomatoes for election season.


1 Feb 2016

Every country has a rule about it - do vehicles drive on the right or left side of the road? In Ancient Roman times, archaeological evidence suggests that the rule there was "keep left". Pope Boniface VIII further enforced this rule in 1300AD, when he declared that pilgrims headed to Rome should keep left.

This rule continued in Europe until America broke the rules (as always). In the 18th century United States, teamsters (drivers of large wagons with teams of horses) had a problem - early American wagons lacked a seat for the driver, forcing them to sit on the rear-left horse, where it was easiest for a right-handed teamster to use the lash. In turn, this also meant that it was safer to drive on the right side of the road, as that improved the driver's range of vision. Since these wagons were so huge, they basically determined the flow of traffic. From there, it became an American habit. The French adopted the rule for no apparent reason after that, and it spread from there.

For the longest time, Sweden used the keep-left rule, but leaders were beginning to see the advantages of keep-right instead, especially seeing as their cars already had the steering wheels on the left, like in America. Around 1963, they decided to begin the process of switching from the left to the right side of the road, which involved four years of retrofitting everything - traffic signals, signs, bus doors, headlights - at a cost of £648 million by today's standards. They advertised the change heavily, and on Sunday, September 3, 1967, it was time for the big event - having EVERYONE switch from driving on the left to the right.

Overnight, only essential traffic was allowed, to make the initial switch easier. At 4:50 am, all vehicles on the roads were required to completely stop and move to the right side. At 5pm, traffic resumed without any accidents. Sunday morning, everyone was so excited to try out the new "keep-right" rule that hundreds of thousands of drivers took to the roads. Yet, even with the huge change, only 157 accidents occurred across the entire country of Sweden that day, with only 32 injuries. Monday was similarly peaceful, even through rush hour, and only 125 traffic accidents occurred, less than the usual.


25 Jan 2016

Today is Bubble Wrap Day, celebrating everyone's favorite packing material. Bubble Wrap was invented by Alfred W. Fielding and Marc Chavannes in 1957 by accident, while the two engineers were trying to invent plastic wallpaper with paper backing. Their initial plan proved a failure, but they realized that they could market the mistake as a packing material, so they founded the Sealed Air Corporation.

The Sealed Air Corporation invented the speciality chemical process used to create bubble wrap, a process which is now taught at Fielding's alma mater, Stevens Institute of Technology.

Today, the uses for bubble wrap go beyond packing. The Sealed Air Corporation has an annual competition challenging young innovators to come up with new uses for everyone's favorite packing material. It can be used as cheap insulation, sleeping bag material, emergency first-aid splints...the list goes on.

Of course, I have several sheets in my closet for the express purpose of popping. That's the most fun use of all!


18 Jan 2016

Since today is also Winnie-the-Pooh day, it would be more than appropriate to share some history about the beloved bear and his creator.

For one thing, A.A. Milne had a very memorable science teacher when he was a boy - none other than H.G. Wells himself! Wells wrote that the young Milne would often get distracted, misplace things, and would talk and write a mile a minute. He said that Milne found... "this a very interesting world, and would to learn physiology, botany, geology, astronomy and everything else."

Milne wrote many things before the famous Winnie-the-Pooh stories, including nineteen plays, four screenplays, and three novels. Pooh and his friends were actually not his invention to begin with, but as he readily credited, the products of the combined imaginations of his wife Daphne and son Christopher Robin. Daphne was the one who imbued the denizens of the hundred acre wood with their personalities and unique voices - gloomy Eeyore, excitable Tigger, fussbudget Rabbit, nervous Piglet, and the ever-hungry Winnie-the-Pooh.

Pooh himself was a teddy bear that Christopher Robin's parents bought for him from Herrod's department store. The original bear, along with the rest of Christopher Robin's childhood animal friends, are now on display alongside the original manuscripts. Of course, the characters themselves live on in the imaginations of millions.


11 Jan 2016

Back in the days of the printing press, the letter blocks had to be organized (obviously). They were stored in boxes called "cases". The "minuscule" letters (yes, that's the proper term) were stored lower in the stack of cases than the "majuscule" letters. Thus, the small letters were in the "lower case", and the bigger letters were in the "upper case".

The terms lowercase and uppercase have since stuck, more-or-less outlasting their namesakes. I guess nobody wanted to remember how to spell "majuscule".


5 Jan 2016

We're getting plenty of snow here in the Northwest right now. It's a pretty common phenomenon on earth. According to NASA, it's not so rare on Venus either, although their snow is significantly different from ours.

The difference comes as a result of Venus' atmosphere, plus the fact that the planet is too hot for water to exist in liquid form, much less a solid. Yet, the mountains of Venus are covered with snow: metal snow!

The temperatures on the surface of Venus can approach 900 degrees Fahrenheit, such that the reflective metals of galena and bismuthinite common on Venus literally evaporate out of the lowlands. Once they reach the colder (relatively) atmosphere, they turn into a metallic precipitation, which falls as pyrite snow on the mountains.

Just how tall are these mountains? The tallest, Maxwell Montes, is 6.8 miles high - nearly two miles taller than our own Mount Everest!


14 Dec 2015

Shakespeare did far more than give us some plays that we're forced to read in high school. (And, on that note, I'll add that I adored Much Ado About Nothing.) The Bard allegedly gave us over 1700 new words! Some came from using a word in a different way than before, such as using a noun as a verb (or "verbing the noun", as Calvin and Hobbes would describe it.) Others were portmanteaus, combinations of two or more words.

"Assassination" was first used in Macbeth, Act I Scene VII. It was a new form of the already existing word "assassinate", which was an import from French Latin via Arabic. It was originally a derogatory political term for a group of Muslims who threatened to kill officials of the Abbasid caliphate during the 8th through 14th centuries. (SOURCE:

"Friended" was also invented by Shakespeare (not by Facebook!), first appearing in Measure for Measure, Act IV, Scene II.

Among the words Shakespeare is credited with coining are excitement, cold-blooded, compromise, laughable, marketable, and zany.

A complete discussion can be found at

The problem is that we cannot exactly determine if Shakespeare actually invented these words, or was merely the first to use them in print. There is some debate in the English world about that, but I'm not going to touch that one with a ten foot pole. (And no, that phrase isn't one of his - I checked.)

7 Dec 2015

Despite being one of the most famous painters in history, Vincent van Gogh had a rough life. He only managed to sell one painting during his entire career - The Red Vineyard - which was sold for 400 fracs only months before his death at age 37.

The details surrounding his death aren't quite as clear as the history books tell us. While it is claimed that the painter committed suicide, forensics expert Dr. Vincert Di Maio reviewed the 1890 evidence, and he believes that the painter could not have possibly shot himself in the chest as claimed. The angle necessary to create the fatal wounds would have required the gun to be held very awkwardly, and the painter would have had scorch marks on his hand from the gun, which he did not.

Following Van Gogh's death, his brother Theo observed in a letter that the world would soon recognize his late sibling's talent as a painter, and bemoan the early departure of a great artist. He certainly was right about that.


30 Nov 2015

I'm not certain how many names there are for the '#' symbol, but there are a LOT of them. Apparently, the official name is the "octothorpe" (who'd have guessed?).

It first appeared in writing somewhere around 1853, but it wasn't yet used in print; the standard was to use the numero (№) symbol for "number", and the barred-lb (℔) symbol for "pounds" (weight). Even once it appeared on typewriters around 1886, it didn't become a standard symbol until the mid 1900s.

While it resembles the musical symbol for "sharp" (♯), it really is its own symbol with its own history; the sharp appears on 18th century sheet music, though it has apparently been in use since the 13th century. (They found original Mozart sheet music in Hungary: Nevertheless, our own humble octothorpe is sometimes called "sharp", due to its coincidental resemblance, thus why we have the programming language C# ("C-Sharp").

Speaking of resemblance to other symbols, its similarity to the Chinese character for a water well (井) gives it the name "jĭng".

Programmers (and other people) have given a plethora of colorful names to this strange little all-purpose character, including "square" (British), "crosshatch", "fence", "hash", "hex", "punch", "grid", "tictactoe", and "waffle".

"Hash" is perhaps the most common programming name for the character, and it is critical to our own industry portmanteau for the all-important Bash symbol "#!", called the "shebang" [(ha)sh-bang]. The name "hash" also gives us the Twitter-spawned word "hashtag".

There are so many uses for our friend, the octothorpe, that I've barely scratched the surface. Check out the Wikipedia article for plenty more names and uses:

Octothorpe. Hmm. That's about as funny a word as ampersand (&)...but that's a whole 'nother useless trivia entry!

16 Nov 2015

Bubble gum is one of those weird flavors that no one really seems to know what it is. In reality, bubble gum flavor is (originally) a mixture of sweeteners and fruit juices that has long been an industry secret. Currently, it's a lot of chemicals. Maybe ignorance really is bliss on that subject?

Bubble gum got its start in 1906, when confectioner Frank Henry Fleer mixed up what became known as Blibber-Blubber. The gum had issues, however - it had a similar texture to Silly Putty (yum?) and tended to splatter too easily. Fleer's company decided not to market it.

It wasn't until 1928 that an accountant of all people, Walter Diemer, at the Fleer Company updated the formula to contain latex. The recipe worked, and was soon marketed as Double Bubble. As to the classic pink color, that was mere chance. It was the only food dye that Diemer had on hand.

It's funny how many things we take for granted are the result of coincidence.

9 Nov 2015

Green is synonymous with money here in the United States, but have you ever stopped and questioned why that particular color was chosen?

Originally, paper money in the U.S. varied considerably. Prior to the Civil War, it was printed by state-chartered banks, and there was no real standard on size, color, or design. Because it was often printed in black-and-white, it was very easy for high-tech forgers to photograph (a new technology) bills to counterfeit them. After the Civil War, money was standardized by the Federal government.

They instituted standard sizes, which were also smaller than before to save printing costs. They standardized designs to make it easier to spot counterfeits, and switched to using green ink. It was important that they use color, since photography was only in black-and-white back then. Green was chosen because it represented growth and stability (think trees), and because green ink was plentiful.


2 Nov 2015

We take the idea of 24 hours in a day, 60 minutes in an hour for granted. It's ingrained into our way of thinking nearly the world over. But we often don't think about where such divisions come from. The division of day and night is quite natural, but aside from high noon, the idea of dividing the day into smaller units is rather non-obvious.

The Egyptians are credited with being the first to divide daylight into smaller units, as they are thought to have invented the sundial. Egyptian astronomers used a group of 36 stars to divide the night sky, and thus the passage of time, into 36 equal units. Later, that was reduced to 24 stars, with 12 marking the night, and 12 (theoretically) marking the day. That significance of 12 was probably due to the Egyptian use of the duodecimal (base 12) number system. (Remember that from a prior Useless Trivia?)

[It is worth noting that China also used a duodecimal division of time, alongside a decimal division of time, for much of its history.]

Egyptian hours, however, varied based on season, since those hours were a fixed fraction of daylight. The idea of an hour being a fixed amount of time instead originated in Greece. The concept did not become commonplace until the invention of the mechanical clock in 14th century Europe, probably because time measurement apart from daylight measurement was trickier prior to then. (Yes, they had hourglasses, based on an Egyptian invention that used water instead, but those are so tedious.) Hipparchus, the guy largely credited with the "60 minutes to an hour" idea, based the concept on Babylonian astronomical calculations. Babylon had used the sexagesimal number system, that is, base 60, for reasons unknown, so an hour became 60 minutes. Since the duodecimal system was already well in use for time, Hipparchus incorporated both systems, and we get 24-hour days, 60-minute hours, and so forth.

The French tried decimal time during the French Revolution. Several other countries tried the same during various time periods. It never caught on, due to the awkwardness of the fractions - a third of an hour (our 20 minutes) would be incalculable!


27 Oct 2015

The pumpkin is not only the symbol of autumn, but it is also one versatile squash! It grows on every continent except Antarctica, and despite being 90% water, is both a source of food and useful materials. Native Americans would dry strips of pumpkin to make mats, and used the seeds as both food and medicine.

The Irish long had the tradition of carving turnips, but upon arriving in America and finding a multitude of pumpkins...well, I think you can fill in the rest.

During the late autumn months, many zoos like to give pumpkins to their animals, most of which like eating them. Polar bears are apparently big fans of pumpkins. The entertaining spectacle draws plenty of visitors, which helps the zoo pay the massive heating bill during the cold months.


19 Oct 2015

As we know from our history books, George Washington Carver found over 300 uses for peanuts. One of those uses was soap, because peanuts were a good source of glycerol, also known as glycerin.

Oh yeah, glycerol is also used to make nitroglycerin, which in turn, Swedish chemist and engineer Alfred Nobel (also the namesake of the Nobel Prize) used to make dynamite. Even today, peanuts are commonly used as a source of glycerol for the production of explosives.


12 Oct 2015

It shouldn't come as a surprise that the popular Popeye the Sailor cartoon was linked to a 33% increase in spinach sales during the first decade of the cartoon's run. In fact, a 2010 study found that children are much more likely to eat spinach after watching the intermittently muscle-bound sailor flinging Bluto into the sunset. Allegedly, the high iron content in spinach gave Popeye his strength...

But, while Popeye may be able to say "I Yam What I Yam," his snack cannot say the same (only partially because spinach isn't particular chatty.) Spinach does NOT contain much iron at all! German chemist Erich von Wolf was researching the iron content in vegetables in 1870. When he did the calculations for spinach, he misplaced a decimal point, and 3.5 milligrams became 35 milligrams!

While that didn't affect Popeye in the least (mind over matter perhaps?), that little mathematical error continues to plague the medical community, as doctors mistakenly prescribe spinach to patients with low iron on a regular basis.

However, that doesn't mean that you horked down all that spinach as a kid for nothing - cooked spinach IS a good source of calcium, along with other good vitamins and minerals. In the end, then, Popeye has strong bones and a seriously powerful demonstration of the placebo effect. "I Yam...confused now."


While we're on the subject, Popeye is scheduled for the silver screen...

5 Oct 2015

I can say from experience, parrots and starlings aren't the only chatty birds. Believe it or not, chickens are capable of speech.

Due to the shape of their beak, chickens are quite adept at vowels, though consonants can be a little trickier. This, and a general lack of exposure to language, is probably why you don't hear much out of your average chicken. However, with an IQ believed to be higher than the average dog, chickens are perfectly capable of learning to use language.

Some (including myself) even believe that a chicken's attempts to speech aren't mere imitation. The source cites a chicken announcing that the mailman has arrived with "someone's here," and another case of a rooster calling for a (named) hen who hasn't yet come inside for the night. In my own experience, I had one of my chickens call me by name when she wanted the food container refilled.

(It is worth noting that in his autobiograpy, Enslaved by Ducks, Bob Tarte describes his parakeet's ability to use language independently.)

The source article cites frequent human contact as an important element in a chicken learning how to talk. With my own flock, I would hold each chick every day and say its name. Eventually, they got to the point of responding to their name. Yet, they didn't start talking until after I took up the habit of reading to my flock every day. I had a lot of classics to read in high school - Pride and Prejudice and Much Ado About Nothing being two - and I found the reading far more pleasant when I read to my chickens. They seemed to enjoy it, as they would move closer to me while I read.

A few months after I started reading, one of my birds (a Barred Rock name "R.P.") began practicing her "la la la la"s. Shortly after that is when they figured out how to say my name.

Looks like chickens aren't such dumb clucks after all!


28 Sep 2015

"The Mole of Edge Hill" sounds like an agent from Operation SpyRat. In fact, he really existed, albeit considerably less furry than his name would otherwise suggest. Joseph Williamson came to Liverpool, England to seek employment when he was only 11 years old, in 1780. He found a place with Richard Tate and family, who operated a tobacco and snuff firm. He rose through the ranks of the increasingly successful company, and by the early 1800s, had also started a business of his own while continuing to work with the Tate family. Now being quite wealthy, Williamson married Elizabeth Tate in 1802, and around 1805 they had moved into their own home.

Williamson began toying with the idea of becoming a landlord and developing houses along Mason Street in the mostly undeveloped nearby Edge Hill. In 1806, he undertook a massive construction project of several houses there, employing a large group of men. Since the area behind the houses was a drop-off, he had arches built to provide space for the future residents to have gardens. Arches became terraces, and terraces became...

Well, by this point, you can probably take his nickname and fill in the blank. Williamson built tunnels - in fact, a massive network of tunnels underneath Edge Hill. For years, the project went on with seemingly no explanation. When Mrs. Williamson died in 1822, Williamson reportedly began pouring even more attention into his inexplicable project. Regardless of motive, Joseph Williamson employed a significant workforce. Some suggest that the philanthropy of providing jobs was the only motive for the tunnels, especially considering the fact that the men at times performed meaningless jobs, like moving a pile of rocks from one place to another and back again. However, this is once again only a theory. The jobs were not without non-monetary benefits, however, as many apprentices honed their skills and became masters of their respective crafts while working on the tunnels.

For better or worse, Williamson was indeed successful in his housing development efforts, and earned the nickname "The King of Edge Hill." The tunneling continued until Williamson's death on 1 May 1840, at which point it stopped abruptly, never to begin again. The tunnels, the purpose of which remained unknown, became a dumping ground for garbage by the locals. Eventually, the stench from the trash was so horrid, the tunnels were closed up.

Explorations began in early 1900, and in more recent years, the local Friends of Williamson's Tunnels society has been excavating, cleaning, and restoring the tunnels. Because of their use as a dumping ground in the 1800s, much of the remaining "garbage" is now of significant historical interest.

Williamson was buried in the St. Thomas Church cemetery. When the church was demolished many years later, some of the bodies from the cemetery were not moved, and Williamson himself is now buried somewhere under a car park in Liverpool.

And to this day, we have no clue whatsoever why the tunnels were built.


21 Sep 2015

In 1948, the Idaho Department of Fish and Game had a problem. Beavers were overrunning parts of Idaho, and were becoming a nuisance to both humans and a danger to their own population. Thus, they had to be moved...but how? Moving beavers via horse was long, labor intensive, stressful on the beavers and the horses, and incredibly expensive. Moving 76 beavers would be virtually impossible this way!

Then, someone had a crazy idea - what if we just flew them out to the new location and dropped them off...the plane? Skydiving beavers? Crazy thought, but if it worked, it could allow the safe relocation of the furry engineers with less trouble and expense than the old method. But first, they had to make sure it worked.

That's when a beaver was recruited for the experiment. They named him Geronimo, flew him up in a plane, and dropped him in a specially designed box rigged with a parachute. The box would open automatically when it hit the ground. They tested again...and again...and again. Finally, poor Geronimino became used to the idea that, as soon as his fuzzy feet touched ground, he'd be put right back in the box and flown up again.

With the method perfected, and Geronimo still perfectly healthy for having been dropped out of a plane multiple times, the Idaho Department of Fish and Game packed up a bunch beavers and put them on planes. They were flown out to their new home in the Idaho wilderness and tossed out in their skydiving boxes. Of the 76 beavers dropped, all but one made it down safely and started their new lives. The one that didn't got a little enthusiastic, worked his way out of the box with 60 feet to go, and decided to finish the jump himself, to his own demise.

Geronimo was among the survivors, having been satisfactorily compensated for his contributions to science by the accompaniment of three gorgeous (by beaver standards) young females who would be dropped with him to his new home. According to the department, he stayed in his box for several days, not certain whether or not he would be scooped up again. He must have come out and met the ladies, because his descendants are still thriving there today!

In the end, the Idaho Department of Fish and Game only spent $7.50 per beaver, a major savings to them. So, in the end, everyone wins. Even Geronimo.


14 Sep 2015

I had a very hard time deciding on the Useless Trivia this week, as I had three very good tidbits! I settled on the first one I found, simply because I won't remember it otherwise. (Next week, watch for falling beavers.)

I'd wager that we all know the nursery rhyme "Mary Had a Little Lamb". While cute and familiar, we don't really give it a second thought. But what if I told you that the rhyme was likely based on a true story?

When Mary Elizabeth Sawyer was a girl on her father's farm in Massachusetts. During a very cold March, she took in an orphaned lamb to spare it from death. She cared for it and nursed it back to health. The lamb grew quite attached to her and would follow her around. At the suggestion of Nate, her older brother, she took it to school with her at the nearby one-room schoolhouse. It stayed on a blanket by her feet all morning, until Mary was called to the front of the class to recite...and the lamb followed! According to Sawyer, everyone else, including the teacher, found the whole matter rather funny. Mary, however, was quite embarrassed, and put the lamb in the shed for the rest of the school day.

Sawyer reports that one John Roulstone was at the school that day. His uncle, Reverend Lemuel Capen, was helping him study for college. Mary Sawyer says that the day following the incident, Roulstone rode to the schoolhouse and gave her a piece of paper with three verses of a poem.

The poem itself was first published by Sarah Josepha Hale, who claimed authorship. Whether she wrote all, part, or none of the poem remains disputed. The important thing is, Mary did have a little lamb, whose fleece was white as snow.


7 Sep 2015

I stumbled across the first part of this bit of trivia in the Betty Crocker Cookie Book of all places, yesterday, while making oatmeal cookies. (They were delicious.) It may be a few months late, but whatever.

In 1910, the first official Father's Day was Spokane, Washington of all places! But, first we have to go back two years. Anna Jarvis had held the first Mother's Day celebration in Grafton, West Virginia in May 1908, in honor of her deceased mother. Inspired by this, on July 5, 1908 Grace Golden Clayton held a Father's Day service in honor of her own father, who had died in the Monongah Mining Disaster. The celebration took place at a church in Fairmont, West Virginia, apparently only about 15 miles away from Grafton.

In 1910, the YMCA in Spokane, Washington held the first official Father's Day celebration, and the holiday was established locally. Sonora Smart Dodd, who organized the event, had heard about Jarvis' "Mother's Day" celebration during a sermon. She wanted to honor her father, a civil war vet and single parent of six children. She shared the idea with her pastor in 1909, but time was needed for the local churches to prepare for the event, so they deferred to 19 June 2010. It became an annual event in the area.

Surprisingly, by 1920, the event had faded from memory because Dodd had moved to Chicago to study art. When she returned to Spokane in 1930, she resumed promoting the event, and awareness was raised at a national level.

Even more surprising, in 1916, President Woodrow Wilson had traveled to Spokane, and wanted to declare Father's Day a national celebration, but Congress wasn't so warm to the idea. They were afraid it would get commercialized, so they pushed back. President Calvin Coolidge tried again in 1924, but he didn't make a national proclamation, so nothing happened. Congress also blocked another attempt around this time.

Finally, in 1957, Senator Margaret Chase Smith of Maine accused Congress of ignoring fathers for 40 years, and since Mother's Day had been established already by this point, she was able to push a bill through creating the Father's Day holiday. In 1972, President Richard Nixon signed that bill into law.

SOURCE:'s_Day#First_observance (See their citation list).

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